Business engagement to support reopening of local economies

This briefing is written to guide councils and their partners - BIDs, civic groups, business communities and others – that are currently engaging business communities during the reopening phase.

The Reopening High Streets Safely Fund (ROHSS) was launched by MHCLG on 24 May 2020 and awards a share of a total of £50m ERDF funding to Local Authorities across England on a per capita basis. The purpose of the grant is to help councils introduce a range of measures designed to help restart the local economy in their towns and cities.

This briefing is the third of four which relate to activities which can be funded by the scheme:

  1. Support to develop an action plan for how the local authority may begin to safely reopen their local economies (View the Task Force briefing)

  2. Communications and public information activity to ensure that reopening of local economies can be managed successfully and safely

  3. Business-facing awareness raising activities to ensure that reopening of local economies can be managed successfully and safely

  4. Temporary public realm changes to ensure that reopening of local economies can be managed successfully and safely (View the Task Force briefing)

Fund requirements

As with all public funds, there are rules for how monies can be spent and what reporting is required. These are set out in the fund guidance and accompanying FAQ document. Local authorities should seek clarification from MHCLG where any uncertainty exists around the eligibility of activity. Requirements of funding for business engagement activities include:

  • The fund is intended for temporary interventions, specifically targeted at helping the reopening of high streets
  • Activity should be targeted towards SMEs and microbusinesses. However, if broad campaigns provide advice which reaches larger companies, there is no concern

  • Activity should be focused on public-facing businesses on publicly managed high streets.

 

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1. Working in partnership with businesses

Government has produced sector specific advice for businesses in England which can form the basis of guidance to businesses. Many trade associations and professional bodies have also developed additional advice notes in consultation with government and a list of these is here.

A majority of businesses will be required to make fundamental changes to their working practices and for many the requirement to do so is accompanied by considerable trepidation – worries around misinterpreting advice, spot inspections, risk management, fines, staff and customer care and being able to operate profitably are common.

Given the need for coordination of local economic recovery and adaptation to new requirements, additional activity might include:

  • Communication and engagement on physical changes to the streetscape, management of the high street, traffic and pedestrian movements, new cleaning regimes, temporary signage, cycle provision etc

  • Coordination of shop queuing systems / temporary tables and chairs licences / delivery driver holding areas

  • Collation of local business concerns, including deliveries, queue clashes, operating hours, waste collection etc

  • Communication of local support services available to businesses, including street wardens, local volunteers, dedicated council officers and BID staff

  • Coordination and communication of public messaging, signage, public information, and branding

  • Communication around local inspection, penalties for rule infraction, reporting mechanisms etc

Businesses are vital partners in the exercise of reopening the high street and two-way positive engagement is essential to ensure plans are developed which are workable from the business perspective as well as the council’s. Many local authorities have little interaction with businesses outside the regulatory, and this process, while undoubtedly involving elements of regulation, will necessitate the reframing of that relationship to develop a positive and strategic partnership. In this respect, the process should be seen as an opportunity.

Businesses must be involved in developing plans in order to encourage their widescale adoption.

2. Integrate engagement into recovery planning

Business engagement should be integrated into a wider recovery plan so that it links with other related activities, is effective and provides consistent messages for local businesses. For instance, the activities that the council undertook in the initial ‘crisis’ phase (to engage businesses, provide support and grant funding, promote shops that were able to stay open, conduct surveys to understand resilience of local economy etc) will provide an important connection on which to build. Where relationships with the business community are supportive and participatory, buy-in to the longer-term strategy is more assured.

The fund guidance produced by MHCLG includes the High Street Task Force’s COVID-19 Recovery Framework as a suggested guide to planning for high street recovery. This framework has been widely adopted by local authorities in the country as a basis for preparing both for the recovery and for longer-term transformation.

Coordination of activity with businesses

Local authorities should consider how the engagement activity links to other tasks in the recovery strategy, and plan to ensure they are carried out efficiently. For instance, where different departments in local authorities are undertaking town centre performance monitoring, footfall counting, business surveys, preparatory licensing activity, streetscapes redesign etc, it should be possible to integrate these activities into the recovery plan, and to design an efficient business engagement process involving small numbers of council officers, consistent messaging and consistent timing.

Consider setting out a Terms of Reference for the delivery body responsible for the recovery plan and using this to develop a broader and more generalised ‘agreement’ with the business community about how the group will work with them.

 

3. Design consistent messages and processes

To communicate effectively across the various stakeholders that make up a local high street or town centre, collaboration should be designed in across the network, with a clear understanding of the roles, responsibilities and skills of each element.

By defining the goal together, partners can work as equals to deliver their part of the process. In many places, engagement with business has worked best where planning involved partners with broad access to different business audiences, but the same basic message.

Beyond the local resident/business supply and demand system, a wider network of business representative organisations, landowners, ward councillors and other local partners have been working together to design solutions to the current crisis. BIDs, Chambers of Commerce and shopping centres have been working very effectively alongside local authorities to plan streetscapes redesign and service delivery. Smaller retailers have been a lifeline for many people, particularly in district centres, and for those that wish to support local businesses. Smaller businesses have also been lean and able to adapt quickly, with local restaurants moving to an online delivery model and newsagents developing new services for customers, taking in packages, selling PPE and coordinating local appeals.

Across this network are a range of issues and support needs, the majority of which don't originate from a local council but should be considered within the business engagement strategy.

Regular meetings

It’s unlikely that every element of a recovery plan will be right first time, so an open and ongoing conversation with businesses and other stakeholders should take place to help revise processes that are not working, without blame or animosity. Regular ‘Town Hall’ style meetings (virtual where relevant) can be good for this form of engagement, where plans can be communicated from the town centre delivery team (not only the council, but leaders from the other stakeholder groups) to business and concerns aired and addressed.

In this way, plans can develop organically and transparently with the input and ownership of the business community.

4. Consider the longer-term vision

Meetings, and more generally, engagement with businesses can help to develop thinking about what needs to change in the high street to lead recovery into a longer-term transformation process.

The executive group responsible for the delivery plan should consider how the engagement process can pave the way for broader conversations about what your high street needs to be vital and viable into the future. The High Streets Task Force has published a range of resources which enable local people to run diagnostics for their place which identify the key factors influencing vitality and viability, and some suggested approaches to addressing the problems associated with each of them.

Identifying these and developing the transformation plan will involve a carefully designed process of dialogue with the business community, an assessment of what temporary changes might work on a more permanent basis, an understanding of the projected post-COVID-19 trends affecting the high street and a commitment to innovation and partnership.

The High Streets Task Force heard from Worcester City Council in June 2020 which is working towards developing a transformation plan with city partners, Helen Mole’s description of the process is available in the e-learning.