Council facing growing pressure from firms over Covid-19 grants

Staff have been redeployed at Cheshire East Council in response to the volume of applications for emergency business grants from local firms during the coronavirus pandemic.
The authority received a £90m slice of the £330bn Covid-19 support package announced by the Government in March.
When the rollout of funding began around 7th April, Cheshire East said receiving a Government business grant was a free and automatic service.
“There is no lengthy application process and no need for businesses to employ any agency or broker,” it said.
“Eligible businesses, who have registered their bank account details with the council, have begun to receive their grant funding - via automatic bank transfer - from today,” a council statement assured at the time.
In an update this week, the council said 37% of the total grant had been paid out to eligible businesses so far, adding that it was above the average for councils across the country and that it was “working hard to do the necessary checks required to release this public money as soon as possible”.
Cheshire East said it could only pay out the money if the authority had the correct bank details, which had to be verified by the authority.
However, the Chronicle was one of the businesses still waiting to receive its grant this week, even though Cheshire East already had our bank account details.
Sandbach Independent town councillor David Jack, in one of his latest online video blogs in which he regularly takes Cheshire East to task about its response to the coronavirus crisis locally, said that in 18 days the council had “managed to do less than a third of those grants”.
Coun Jack said: “When the Government sent the £95.4m to Cheshire East, it just didn't make up a figure and say ‘here's £95m’, it asked a few weeks previous for Cheshire East to identify the businesses that were eligible so that they could have a figure so the Government could release those funds.
“So I put it to the leader of Cheshire East that you knew from day one who was eligible, you knew the process that was to be implemented to make this money available to those businesses and in that time you have done nothing but bull and bluster businesses telling them that they would have their money before Easter, would have it directly after Easter, would have it before this weekend, those are not answers these businesses want.”¬
He added: “These are people's lives. They've spent years of their lives and their time and their energy and their own money building these businesses to look after themselves, their families and the wider community with employment, and yet you are here putting bridges up, putting obstacles up and not answering the questions.”¬
In a statement released on Friday, before Coun Jack made his comments, Coun Craig Browne, deputy leader at Cheshire East Council, who represents the Independent group, said: “We completely understand that is a very difficult and worrying time for local businesses and are working hard to do the necessary checks required to release this public money as soon as possible.
“Around 50% of businesses in Cheshire East (c8,000) are eligible for grants of £10,000 or £25,000, and, in some cases, they may be eligible for multiple grants.
“In the last few days, over £35.6m in grants has been paid, reaching all of the 2,594 businesses that the council holds verified bank details for.
“37% of the total grant has been paid out to eligible businesses, which is above the average for councils across the country.”¬
Coun Sam Corcoran, the council's Labour leader, said in the same statement: “Our business rates team are working extremely hard to get these grants out. We recognise how important cashflow is for small businesses. However, we can only pay out a grant if we have the correct bank details, which must be verified by our teams before they issue a grant.
“If you have submitted the correct bank details, we will be delivering your grant within the next few days.
“To support this work, the council is redeploying staff to help with the huge demand on this service area. These staff are contacting businesses who have not yet given us their bank details.
“Staff are also working to answer the thousands of telephone calls and correspondence emails being received alongside contacting local businesses to access the funding they are entitled to during these difficult times.
“In the meantime, please bear with us - we know how important these grants are to businesses.”¬
Coun Corcoran has not responded to Coun Jack's comments.
The council is currently verifying 1,600 business bank details and asking other small businesses, who have not yet submitted their details, to go direct to the council's business pages where qualifying businesses can fill out their correct bank details so they can receive their grant money.
The council said businesses were “strongly advised” to not use an agent to complete these “simple forms” and instead go direct, to ensure 100% of the grant funds were received by the businesses.