April Wealden Forum goes online

For the second Wealden Forum, on 9th April, local business owners went virtual – joining host Philip Crocker via Zoom – to discuss a number of lockdown-related issues in preparation for the Bank of England / FSB Business Insights roundtable at The Hive this coming October.

Participants included local entrepreneur Emma Wood; marketing and branding director Kerry Richards; small business consultant Robin Beck, local content writer Hazel Broadley, marketing and media consultant Stuart Smith; financial planner Nathan Blackmore; digital content specialist Steve Bergson; produce industry ops director Sarah Calcutt; automotive website sales director Jules Rastelli; social media consultant Susie Smith; and music club director Keith Stockman.

March forum update

Emma highlighted that the FSB view the October Business Insights roundtable as a two-way opportunity, for local businesses to communicate with policymakers; and for policymakers to show the intel they have gathered from all regions (including rural areas), listen to feedback, and feed into policy decisions where applicable. Therefore, this really is our chance to voice our opinions and be heard by key policy makers going forward in order to achieve convergence and a fully connected dialogue, which is especially important in light of the current economic situation.

The Bank of England and the FSB advised that in order to hold a constructive and well-structured roundtable, the local business community needs to play its part in preparing a clear agenda to refer to in October, so that each opinion can be voiced coherently.

Philip recapped on the last (pre-lockdown) meeting, in which there was an underlying sense of disconnect i.e. between the needs of, and support for local, regional and central businesses, and the need for alignment of these different needs, and levels of support, respectively. Meanwhile, everyone recognized the two-way relationship between local businesses and the wider community.

Exploring the current climate

Despite these concerns, the irony is that we find ourselves entering an extraordinary time which is actually bringing the local community together in different ways. During the meeting, Philip posed the following questions: what are we paying attention to in the world around us, what is working well, and what could work better, as we prepare to face the economic fallout of the pandemic?

Hazel and Jules noted a feeling of inherent connectedness with the community – e.g. a common understanding of the need to socially distance passers-by, while greeting them perhaps more sincerely than previously. We converse remotely with friends, family, clients and colleagues more than before. Our senses and awareness of our surroundings are heightened – and we can we can apply this to our business mindset too – both now and when it’s time to bounce back. It’s important that we retain this new way of thinking when it’s all over, for instance, continuing to #supportlocal wherever possible.

Sarah and Keith noticed that how people are behaving in business now will reflect on how they will perform coming out of the pandemic. Those who are seen as part of the community efforts and supporting wider issues will likely be in the strongest position. They also noted the pressures that local musicians are facing, not just financially, but due to a lack of physical and emotional feedback from a live audience – a unique vibe that is missing online.

Robin and Emma noted that based on individual personality, professional circumstance and eligibility to financial benefits arising from various initiatives, there will be a vast difference between businesses who view their glass half full or half empty, and the spirit of collaboration will be crucial during the coming months any beyond. Social discrepancies, as well as issues such as homelessness, will come to the fore. In addition, those who were previously referred to as ‘unskilled’ workers are now suddenly regarded as key workers, so it is important they are remunerated commensurate with the key services they are providing.

Emma also suggested the potential need for a ‘community bank’ or ‘community fund’, depending on the level of support shown by high street banks over the coming months. Jules responded that Credit Unions have supported consumers for quite some time, but acknowledged the lack of a ‘community bank or fund’ to back small business. Emma also referenced the Localism Act 2011 and resulting initiative, www.mycommunity.org.uk, querying whether the forum could ask the Bank of England about the feasibility of building a community fund under this legislation.

Nathan and Stuart noted the level of courage on the frontline, for example among the police, NHS and other key workers. In addition, they admired the ways businesses have adapted in such a short space of time – nurseries turning into food suppliers, restaurants becoming takeaways, and breweries producing hand sanitisers.

Susie and Steve saw businesses getting creative in order to survive, or perhaps adapting their offering, e.g. by turning to e-commerce to offer products online, or online conferencing to offer their services virtually. Meanwhile, companies such as educational hubs are offering free online resources during the pandemic.

What could be improved?

There is an overwhelming need for improved technology and infrastructure in rural areas such as Cranbrook – specifically broadband capabilities to enable local businesses to work effectively from home and facilitate conferences more smoothly.

What can local businesses ask the Bank of England?

With concern over the potential role that banks should and could play as we start to recover, the forum concluded by setting out two questions to pose in October:

  • How can the Bank of England assure rural communities of their support (easing the current sense of disconnect)?
  • In which specific ways will it be looking to support businesses over the coming months?

The Hive and Darwin Whitty look forward to joining as many local businesses as possible for their next virtual Wealden Open Forum on Thursday 7th May 2020. Everyone is welcome, so come and have your say. Simply reserve your place by email at connect@hivehubs.buzz or call 01580 715722.