Cabinet Member – Councillor Gareth Thomas
To consider a report on the above.
To accept the report and to look forward to receiving more information regarding grants for businesses in due course.
Officers from the Economy and Community Department were welcomed to the meeting.
The report of the Cabinet Member for Economy and Community was submitted, at the request of the scrutiny committee, outlining what support the Council was giving to businesses, particularly with regard to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members were given an opportunity to ask questions and offer observations.
A member noted that, for accuracy, the report in Welsh should refer to 'y Deyrnas Gyfunol', not 'y Deyrnas Unedig'.
In response to questions from members, it was noted that:-
· The increase in the number of enquiries and requests for assistance from businesses over the last 18 months had presented challenges to the service in terms of resources and in terms of redirecting and prioritising the work. In addition, the service had re-prioritised more towards supporting and sustaining businesses to continue, rather than developing and creating new jobs, as in the past. More businesses had contacted the Council during the pandemic than ever before, and one of the positives that came out of this was the establishment of the business bulletin, which was now sent out at least twice a week to more than 4,500 businesses in the county. The service had also moved towards advising on slightly wider issues of good practice and how to adopt new technology. An effort had to be put into the work of sustaining and ensuring that the information was distributed, and the service was also reorganising itself, seeking resources through the Council to enable it to continue with the work.
· There was no specific conversation with the Housing and Property Department at this time regarding assisting key workers, etc., who were moving into the area, to find somewhere to live. Discussions were ongoing with the Department regarding planning policies, etc., but more work was needed on that. It was explained that the main complaint from businesses at present was not skills shortages, but a lack of people to work for those businesses, and this was true across the sectors. Reference was made to a piece of work to try to support the unemployed into jobs in areas where there were gaps, but the scale of the problem was much wider than before, and this would need to be looked at more extensively with other partners, to meet the current level of demand. It was further noted that more than 120 people had been assisted through the Gwaith Gwynedd team, and although this did not address the demand as a whole, significant activity had taken place. Also, there was an attempt to take some small but practical steps to support businesses, e.g. by facilitating Facebook pages, so that businesses could promote their job opportunities.
· The British Government's announcement on future grant arrangements, due to the withdrawal of European funding, had been pushed back, but it was likely that there would be some announcement following next month's financial review. It was explained that the intention was to announce a Common Prosperity Fund, and although arrangements had not yet been confirmed, it was anticipated that instead of transferring a sum of money to Welsh Government for allocation in Wales, each authority would have to apply directly for this money from London. It was expected that there would be capital and revenue funding, as previously, but it was not clear whether the money would be ring-fenced specifically for Wales, although the British Government had said that it would continue with this agreement, and that we would receive exactly the same amount of money.
· The service was quite concerned about the situation. Originally, an announcement was expected, but no discussion had taken place as to what the content of that announcement might be. It was a step forward that we had a relationship, at least, and were able to have a discussion at the moment in an attempt to exert our influence, but it was questioned how much of an influence it really was. Once the information had been announced, the service would be better placed to analyse it. There was advice to expect something along the lines of the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Recovery Fund, announced earlier this year, but if that was the case, there would be considerable cause for concern. It was suggested that a further report on this be submitted to the committee for scrutiny when more information became available.
· The support for new businesses referred to in the report was specific assistance provided by Welsh Government to support newly-established businesses when the pandemic began. Efforts were made to help start and grow businesses throughout the pandemic. Attention and resources were redirected over the past 18 months, not only by the Council, but also by Welsh Government, towards supporting the sustaining of businesses in the short term, but a shift back towards more developmental support was starting now. The demand for funding to develop or grow had remained relatively high throughout the period, and remained remarkably high.
· In terms of referring people for support, they were encouraged to contact the service and register for the business bulletin, as this was a good way to be alert to the practical support and grants, as they became available. It was noted that it was possible to register via the Council's website, and it was agreed to circulate a direct link for committee members following the meeting, so that they could encourage local businesses in their area to take advantage of the provision.
· It was explained that a number of funds were still available to help businesses grow, and people were encouraged to contact the service in the first instance. In the longer term, there was a need to build on the communication that had taken place during the COVID period, increasing the engagement and dialogue with businesses, and a priority for the service next year was to increase the capability and capacity to do so, because this had been challenging historically, due to the amount of resources available.
· The service's resources were insufficient to maintain the relationship with businesses at the same level as the last year and a half, and the experiences of this recent period had shown that the resource needed to be strengthened in order to sustain and support businesses more meticulously.
· Although the service did not have the expertise to offer support to export businesses, members could refer any business in their area to the Business Support Manager, who would find the expertise for them.
The Chair thanked the Department for the report and wished it every success with the bids.
Before casting his vote on the matter, Councillor Mike Stevens asked whether he should declare a personal interest as he had a manufacturing business in Gwynedd and was also the Chair of the Tywyn Region Chamber of Tourism and Commerce.
In response, it was explained that the opportunity to declare an interest, under item 2 on the agenda, had passed, but that the declaration of interest would be noted at this point. It was added that it was not a prejudicial interest and that the member could proceed to vote on the matter.
RESOLVED to accept the report and to look forward to receiving more information regarding grants to businesses in due course.