Crawley businesses need more support to bounce back from pandemic
Crawley’s economy has the potential to bounce back from the impact of the pandemic but the government has not done enough to protect some smaller businesses.
This message was delivered loud and clear by business owners and Steve Sawyer, executive director of the Manor Royal Business Improvement District, during a visit by shadow minister Rachel Reeves MP.
The group gathered in the sunshine opposite Thales where they discussed the impact the pandemic has had on the town and their businesses, gaps in the financial support system, and plans for the future.
Mr Sawyer said: “The impact of Covid has been well reported in terms of how it’s affected Crawley.
“We’ve seen here in Manor Royal a huge number of businesses who have failed to get the support that they need to be able to survive the crisis and to recover.
“What we’d like to see the government do is to ensure that the money and support that businesses need gets to the right places at the right time to allow these companies to bounce back.
“The sooner they bounce back, the better Crawley will be, the better UK Plc will be because so many places rely on the success of Crawley to do well.”
Mr Sawyer was joined by Chris Meeking, MD of aviation supply chain Avtura, and Gevin White, MD of hospitality supply chain Co-ordination Catering Hire.
One of the concerns shared by the two businessmen was the level of help offered to the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors compared to that offered to firms like theirs, which actually supply those sectors.
Mr Meeking, who has a staff of ten working from Metcalf Way, warned this could cause problems as the country gets back on its feet.
He said: “It’s a supply chain. And the problem is that if you don’t protect the supply chain and all the SMEs [small to medium enterprises], when it does come back, if we’ve all gone, the airport will be turning round and saying ‘we’re ready to go’ and nothing will happen.
“Because if you lose those SMEs, the place will come to a standstill.”
Crawley has been hit particularly hard by Covid, with unemployment trebling to more than eight per cent, 7,000 plus jobs lost at Gatwick, and some 25,800 residents – 41 per cent of the workforce – placed on furlough.
The impact on Manor Royal has been noticeable.
With 30,000 people from some 600 firms working in nine million square feet of factories, warehouses and offices, the industrial estate was alive with activity before the pandemic.
For a year it was spookily quiet and, while things look to be picking up, it is still not back to full strength.
While Mr Sawyer said it would bounce back over the next 18 months, Mr Meeking felt it would be two or three years before some industries were back to full strength.
Another concern has been the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, which was designed to bridge the gap in economic performance and opportunities between the various areas and regions across the country.
Mr Sawyer worried that it was more a case of ‘levelling down’.
He said: “We should be looking to support towns like this so they can bounce out more quickly because they have more potential to contribute to the greater good of the country.
“It’s only provided that it gets the support that it needs to be able to do that.
“It’s a really crucial time for Crawley right now, coming out of the Covid crisis. This is when it needs that support to diversify, to be more innovative, to be able to grow.
“If it doesn’t get that support it’s going to take a lot, lot longer.”
Mr White is no stranger to the idea of innovation.
His family run business employs 23 staff – more during busy periods – and is based in Cobham Way.
The company supplies catering and event equipment to the likes of pubs, restaurants and hotels and he said he now has 10,000 square feet of equipment which was ‘gathering dust’.
With that avenue temporarily closed, Mr White has been approaching business from a different angle, coming up with a rather environmentally friendly idea – the cleaning of plastics.
The plan is to collect plastic food containers – such as sandwich holders and egg cartons – deep clean them and return them for reuse.
A simple idea – but getting grant funding for the £180,000 piece of machinery which will make this green dream possible has not been simple at all.
While Mr White described the idea as ‘great thinking’, none of the funding avenues he expected to be open have been able to help – an extra unwelcome frustration in a particularly frustrating year.
He said: “We can come back and we will come back but we just need that little bit of protection just to get us over this little bit.”
That frustration was shared by Peter Smith, Crawley Borough Council’s cabinet member for planning and economic development.
He said: “One of the projects in our recovery task-force programme is to set up an innovation centre.
“But there’s no point innovating if you haven’t got the support from central government, the funding coming down to help the businesses to grow.”
Another problem has been the issue of rents – Crawley is not exactly a cheap place to live or to run a business.
Mr Sawyer said: “Against the backdrop of these guys not being able to trade, being forced to close their doors, not getting support, not getting the financial help they need to be able to grow or flip their business, yet the rents are still going up. How do you balance that out?”
While Ms Reeves said there was lots of government support available, she acknowledged that it ‘just hasn’t gone to the right places’.
Speaking after the meeting, she added: “I found it really useful to hear first-hand about the difficulties that some businesses have experienced due to gaps in the government’s business support programme.
“This will help us to put more pressure on the government to take the action needed to help economies like Crawley’s to recover as quickly as possible.”