Author: Ivan d’Avoine
As we leave 2020 behind us, a year which will always be associated with the arrival of COVID- 19 and the consequent economic upheaval, there appears to be some cause for optimism in 2021. Multiple vaccines have been developed worldwide and three of these have been authorised for use in the UK, all within a year. Pre Covid, this process had never been achieved in less than five years. It is no surprise that the sectors most affected are those that involve face to face consumer spending, and an estimated 6m small businesses supporting 16.6m jobs in the UK are now in a financially precarious position according to a study from King’s Business School. Whilst there is no denying the dire circumstances which most independent businesses find themselves as England begins its third lockdown, we must also remember the communities across the country who are coming together in solidarity. This may prove just as important as the vaccination programme, especially in the long term.
At Lewisham Local, we work to strengthen the borough’s voluntary and community sector. Our Lewisham Local Card operates as a discount scheme, which started as a way of rewarding volunteers for the great work they do for the community, whilst simultaneously encouraging local spending. Over 500 local businesses have now signed up to give discounts of up to 50% off to community supporters. Essentially, the scheme’s fundamental core is to provide a support network for small and independent businesses which has become ever more important in today’s uncertain landscape.
Lewisham has one of the highest proportions of small businesses in the capital, and although nearly 4000 of these have been provided with grants worth over £43m, many still struggle to make ends meet, especially during lockdown. At Lewisham Local, we have been reaching out to business owners who are signed up to the discount scheme, to gain constructive feedback and establish further support that may be required. Ignition Brewery which employs and trains people with learning disabilities and underlying health conditions, have been with the scheme for around two years. They told us that they have had to furlough staff members as well as pay them to work from home over the last year. In January they decided to close their taproom takeaway to ensure the safety of their team who are at higher risk to the virus. Regarding the discount scheme, they explained how it indicates signs of a “well-run business”, as local custom is prioritised and, during the pandemic, it has helped to engage conversation which is not always Covid related.
Although the Brewery has closed for the time being, they have set up a monthly delivery round like many other businesses who have had to transition towards a takeaway or delivery service. However, at Bella Roma restaurant, who have been with the scheme for 3 years now, they mentioned how this trend had led to a slump in their sales during the second lockdown as opposed to the first, as businesses have adjusted, and competition has increased exponentially.
The start-up Ordrs, on the other hand, has grown considerably since its inception around a year ago, when it also joined the Lewisham Local Card. Focusing on ethical shopping in the Lewisham community, the online platform offers a same-day delivery service which connects local grocery stores and residents. Ordrs has seen a silver lining for their business in Covid lockdowns, where “local stores have been more open to partnering” and as more people stay home, especially vulnerable groups. They feel that their work is being “validated” as a company which fundamentally seeks to strengthen the local economy, at a time when consumers become more aware of the ethical array of choices available to them. As a member of the card scheme, Ordrs told us that it has helped them gain more customers in the area, whilst also providing them with vital information and support in the form of weekly emails. According to Ordrs, the scheme is a “win win situation for all involved”.
Community residents clearly want to help in the UK, and a record number of volunteers have played a key part in the national infrastructure during the pandemic. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, 10 million UK adults had volunteered in their community in May last year, with millions of Britons also serving informally, whether it be delivering grocery shopping for others, or ringing up lonely residents. ONS research into the social impacts of COVID-19 show a steady increase in community spirit, which may be surprising for many. Although no one dares to predict the next year, there is a glimpse of a pending normality now that the vaccination programme is underway. By normality, we mean a new normal where community infrastructures are embedded rather than ‘extracurricular’. It is essential that we continue to strengthen the local community and show support for independent and smaller businesses irrespective of the Covid situation. Engaging with discount schemes such as the Lewisham Local Card contributes to long term support and development of the community, which should put us in good stead against harmful and disconnected practices that do not keep each other accountable, and help mitigate future economic crises.