Borough’s economic boss discusses the recovery from COVID-19

Barwell’s hi-spec refurbishment programme has positioned the park as a leading industrial space supporting the borough’s bounce back from the pandemic. With millions of pounds being distributed to support businesses, combined with a naturally innovative population, the borough’s leaders have confidence in the area’s economic future. Councillor John Sweeney, Kingston Council’s Portfolio Holder for Business and Leisure, spoke to Barwell Today – the park’s newspaper – about the road map to recovery.

Which sectors in Kingston have been affected most by the pandemic and how has the council supported them?
Much like the rest of London the retail and hospitality sectors, and their suppliers, are very much impacted by COVID-19. In addition to these, many small businesses providing personal services, haircare and beauty treatments, are deeply affected too.
The Royal Borough of Kingston has distributed more than £41m in ‘COVID grants’ since March 2020, including more than £10m since the autumn, and almost £500,000 via our Additional Restrictions Grant Funding Business Restrictions Hardship Grant.
The council business grants scheme is focused on first addressing those most in need and is subject to continual review, with new eligible businesses being added.

How many businesses have taken up the support and, given the borough’s business base, have they primarily been SMEs?
A total of 1,308 businesses who pay little or no business rates received the Small Business Grant, a one-off cash grant of £10,000. A further 766 businesses received a Retail Hospitality & Leisure Grant which entitled them to a one-off cash grant of up to £25,000. Another 216 businesses received support from a local Discretionary Grant Fund for businesses most impacted by closures.

Will the support evolve as we emerge from lockdown?
The council’s approach is designed to evolve and grow, learning from the range of unsuccessful applications, and other feedback, to guide where to broaden our support.  For example, we’ve subsequently added a range of additional eligible businesses, including many cultural/creative businesses and personal care services.
Looking ahead, we are in a position to expand our grants scheme significantly.  This includes options to extend the Additional Restrictions Grant in the coming weeks, including repeat payments, extended eligibility and extra support for hospitality and retail.

What has been your experience of how businesses have coped with the pandemic?
I think it’s a mixed experience for businesses across Kingston. The sectors where pandemic restrictions have caused the most pain are very frustrated that many of their investments to make their business COVID safe have not been given an opportunity to be tested as they were forced to close during the onset of the second wave.
A few businesses were fortunate in that they were able to adapt business models to carry on trading in some form. Morgan’s Dairy and Stears Fruit & Veg Wholesalers switched very rapidly from being catering trade suppliers to supplying their local communities.
For many of our local businesses the hard work needed to restore balance sheets can only begin once lockdown restrictions are lifted permanently. This is why it’s so important we all play our role in taking the right steps to reduce the spread of the virus whether that’s working from home or getting vaccinated.

Which sectors have been impacted positively and could you give examples of where you have seen businesses innovating or creatively adapting?
For a lot of businesses, the pandemic forced them to work in new ways. The most profound change has been the adoption of home working and video conferencing in industries where usage was not widely accepted. Travelling to and from meetings can be expensive and time consuming. When we emerge from lockdown, I expect to see a new blend of online and face to face meetings and jobs where you are no longer expected to be in the office Monday to Friday.

How do you see the Kingston business base/landscape changing as we emerge from lockdown?
Kingston’s town centre has been a place of business for more than a thousand years so setbacks have been overcome before and this one will be no different. I’m confident the town centre will thrive again.
With more than 300 stores, a bustling marketplace, as well as a vibrant offer of independent shopping, Kingston is one of the biggest shopping destinations in London. Even during the pandemic as some stores closed, new retailers have stepped in to fill vacant stores.
Our biggest challenge will be to attract more high-paying jobs to the borough. Our residents are generally well-educated and high-earning compared to the London average. In recent times commuting into London or further afield was necessary for our highly skilled workforce.
However, with companies like Lidl moving their head office to Tolworth and Unilever seeking to relocate its global HQ to Kingston, we may see a new trend emerging. There are already some great businesses on the Barwell Estate too. My contacts in commercial property tell me that more and more businesses want to find locations away from central London. Employers will note Kingston is a perfect location to live and work considering the quality of our schools, vibrant green spaces and other amenities.

What part might workspace, retail centres and industrial areas play as we move forward with economic recovery?
The business community in general has played an important role during the pandemic. Many businesses have stepped in to support the local community and the NHS over the last 12 months. Our local businesses have shown they want to be part of the community.
Kingston will need to sustain and grow workspace and industrial offerings in the borough to complement our very vibrant retail sector. The quality and quantity of workspace across the borough needs to be improved. Some industrial areas, like Barwell, have invested in order to attract great businesses. It would be fantastic to see more of our industrial spaces being upgraded.

How might the borough’s economic assets e.g., Kingston Town Centre, Barwell Business Park, Kingston University students, contribute to the ongoing recovery?
A lot of work on economic recovery has already begun and the different partners across the borough are already working closely and meeting regularly. An Economic Task Force set up by the council works with Kingston First, Barwell and the university on a number of initiatives.
For example, a lot of work has been done across the borough to establish and launch Kickstart [to create new job placements for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit]. Local businesses can hire a young person using generous government funding. Together the university and council have launched the Kingston Innovation Network. Webinars have introduced local businesses to Innovate UK and other sources of funding support. For example, Kingston is one of six universities involved in a pioneering programme which encourages collaboration between universities and businesses to promote economic growth, innovation and recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you think will be the key selling points in the post-COVID world for being based in Kingston? What factors will make Kingston’s businesses well placed to recover quickly?
Kingston has a business heritage centred on innovation and pioneering. It’s the home of the Mini Cooper and was once the centre of the UK aviation industry when Sopwith, Hawker, Hawker Siddeley and British Aerospace organisations were all based in Kingston upon Thames between 1912-1992.
Kingstonians are very good at innovation and adaption which make the attractive employees. However, for smart businesses looking to scale up our residents, the university and local schools offer an amazing pool of talent to draw upon.
They should also note that once again Kingston came second in “happiest places to live in London” Rightmove survey. Our friendly neighbours over in Richmond came first this time but we are catching up fast.
So, it’s the people who live and work in Kingston that will determine how quickly we recover and fortunately we are blessed with a talented community who take opportunities when presented with them and happily hold out a helping hand to support those less fortunate. This makes Kingston such a unique place to live and work.