Helping vital businesses survive the pandemic with efficient grants payments
4 mins read
We helped Westminster City Council to make sure that most businesses in the area survived the pandemic by distributing grants quickly and accurately in 2020 and 2021.
Westminster, in the centre of London, includes many iconic tourist locations and the important West End business community. Whilst all local authorities have had to address the issue of business support grants, the size of Westminster’s commercial sector significantly increases the magnitude of the council’s requirement. Westminster Council has 39,000 business rates properties on its valuation list and in a normal year would collect around £2.4 billion in business rates. This is by far the largest collectable debit in the country and accounts for over 8% of the national collection of business rates.
We have had a contractual relationship with the council since 1994, providing a comprehensive revenue and benefits service, including all associated IT and digital services. We stepped up to support the council at the start of the pandemic when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a package of support for businesses. This included a 100% Expanded Retail Discount and an initial set of business support grants. Both the council and Capita are experienced in dealing with late government changes to business rate legislation and quickly implemented the Expanded Retail Discount scheme, applying nearly £1 billion of relief to eligible rate bills.
Whilst we were experienced in business rate administration, we had no relevant experience of grant administration. The issue was compounded by the fact that the council had no specialist grant computer system to administer the government’s scheme and all employees had to work from home because of the pandemic.
Together we quickly drew-up a creative and agile plan to administer and pay the initial business support grants. It became clear that the aim of central government was for local authorities to pay eligible businesses as quickly as possible, whilst at the same time confirming eligibility and preventing fraud.
The first round of grants announced by the government were for small businesses entitled to small business rate relief (£10k) and for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses (£10k and £25k). The council used existing business rate data to pay the grants via BACS or cheque and reduce the risk of fraud while getting the money to businesses as soon as possible.
By administering the grants payments via the council’s business rates system, it didn’t need to develop or purchase a new computer system and could record the payments for audit purposes and for government statistical returns.
The solution could not have worked without employees and the issue of moving team members from office accommodation to homeworking needed to be addressed as a priority at the start of the project. Whilst some employees already had homeworking capability, most staff were office based. Homeworking IT kit was quickly acquired and delivered to all members of the team at their home addresses, which enabled the staff to quickly resume working. The kit, including Microsoft Teams software, has ensured a seamless transfer from office accommodation to homeworking.
We made our collaboration a success by developing a single team-based process, with daily performance management meetings covering prioritisation, target setting, resource allocation and compliance with the latest government guidelines.
As we progressed through 2020/21, the issue of business support grants could be likened to a video game, in that as soon as we completed one phase of grants, the government provided a new grant, increasing the difficultly level each time! After the initial round of grants, the government introduced a Discretionary Grant scheme for non-ratepayers (for which the council had no known data) and then 12 different business grant schemes covering each different national lockdown and tier level. Each scheme was more complex than the last.
Our collaboration with Westminster Council has produced impressive results:
- Westminster was the first council in the country to pay grants equating to 100% of our government funding allocation for the Round 1 grant schemes, paying £98m to 5,500 businesses
- The development and administration of a Discretionary Grant scheme was implemented to schedule, paying 492 businesses £4.9m in grants
- The council has additionally paid all the Round 2 grants up to 31 March 2021 (£100m to 5,500 businesses) and is currently paying the last Restart grant of £60m
- All of the above has been achieved, whilst still maintaining a business rate service to 39,000 businesses.
It is impossible to measure the effect of these payments on Westminster’s businesses and the local residents they employ. However, it is considered that our prompt and accurate payment of grants has undoubtedly kept a number of our local businesses afloat and able to survive the pandemic.
Comments from local businesses provide further evidence of the positive impact we have made during an exceptional year. They have been anonymised for GDPR reasons.
“May I just re-iterate my thanks to you for being so supportive to businesses in Westminster. It must have been a mammoth task for you, but all your time and hard work is greatly appreciated.”
“I am truly grateful for all of the time, effort and most importantly patience that your entire team has expended on my behalf. English is not my first language and I have been fortunate enough to have been helped with my correspondence in the latter stages of my interaction with you (makes communication a little easier for me!). I offer my heartfelt thanks.”
“You have given my business a real, fighting chance of survival. I know it is your job but please know that your actions are making a real impact on people’s lives.”
Thank you for the fantastic job you’ve done getting the grants out so quickly. It really shows we’re doing what we can to support business and very pleasing (though not surprising!) that Westminster was the first to get them out. Well done. A great effort.
Councillor Rachael Robathan,, Leader of Westminster City Council, Ward Member for Knightsbridge & Belgravia