NatWest Launches SME Transformation Taskforce

For most small businesses, 2020 will have been their toughest ever year. No sector of the economy has been untouched by the Covid-19 crisis. Sadly, some businesses will never recover. 

Recent weeks have seen some market optimism following the vaccine breakthrough, with hope for what that this could mean for a recovery. But this hope is fragile.

In response, NatWest has launched a new ‘SME Transformation Taskforce’ – bringing together policymakers, business groups and small businesses to identify the barriers and champion solutions for SMEs.

The Taskforce has strong links and shared aims with the British Chambers of Commerce Restart, Rebuild, Renew campaign which NatWest is a partner on. I was delighted that BCC Policy Director, James Martin, was able to join it. The Taskforce also includes colleagues and small business champions, including Martin McTague from the FSB; Seema Malhotra MP and Kevin Hollinrake MP.

The first meeting of the Taskforce provided an opportunity for us to hear the experiences of small business Thom Elliot, co-founder of Pizza Pilgrims, and Kathy Cathon, founder of Brighton Gin, both of whom underwent significant change and turmoil due to the pandemic.

The meeting also established the priorities for the Taskforce, and identified the following themes:

1. Financial support must switch from ‘survival mode’ to ‘spearheading growth’ 

Government interventions such as CBILS (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans) and BBLs (Bounce Back Loans) kept businesses afloat when they were in dire need of support, but we now need more flexible funding structures that not only protect business’ balance sheets but also enable investment for their recovery and future growth.

There is great ingenuity within the SME community. Pizza Pilgrims, for instance, invested in direct-to-door home pizza kits to boost sales during lockdown, while Brighton Gin is still seeing demand for its hand sanitiser – a product they originally only produced to meet the nationwide shortage in the Spring.

But this sort of pivot takes investment and the existing government lending schemes aren’t enough to meet future growth needs. We should also look to increase private funding via investment vehicles such as Venture Capital Trusts and Environmental Investment Schemes ensuring they are meeting the needs of start-ups post-Covid.

2. Reimagining our city centres and community hubs

Covid-19 has accelerated the decline of many ‘bricks and mortar’ businesses on the high street and online retail has gathered even more pace. To breathe life back into our high streets once lockdown ends measures such as extending rent moratorium past January 2021 to give small businesses that extra breathing space need to be explored. As do ideas to support a greater ‘shop local’ ethos amongst consumers and ‘supply local’ for larger business supply chains, as well as the need to re-skill and re-train large cohorts of our workforce.

3. Sector-specific interventions 

The economic recovery won’t be the same across all sectors. Some will continue to be squeezed as local lockdowns continues and the recovery of smaller businesses’ will be slower than larger organisations.

Support for SMEs needs to be tailored to the sectors and regions hardest hit. Ideas put forward included extending the VAT cut for the hospitality sector past March 2021.

4. Changing the customer-bank power dynamic, and opening up to new customers

The financial and emotional pain felt by Covid-19 is a deeply personal one, and the response by banks to their business customers must reflect this.

Participants agreed that the banking sector needs to identify how they can better communicate with their customers including clarifying the support available from banks.

We know that these themes represent a snapshot of the many challenges facing SMEs in this crisis and this is just the start of the conversation.

BCC sits at the heart of local business networks across the UK, and I know that you will continue to champion businesses of all shapes and sizes, NatWest is a proud partner of yours and we look forward to continuing this work through both the Restart, Renew, Rebuild campaign and the SME Transformation Taskforce.

Andrew Harrison

Head of Business Banking, NatWest


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