'My firm is viable – but I can’t get a loan'

By Andy Verity
BBC economics correspondent

Gary CrosbieImage source, Kevin Osborne
Image caption,
Gary Crosbie runs a previously successful business, but is struggling to get a loan

Gary Crosbie wants to keep his staff on, but like other small firms, his profitable business now faces running out of cash owing to the coronavirus shutdown.

Mr Crosbie runs Interefurb, which refurbishes pubs, hotels and restaurants.

He says he can demonstrate three years of profits, with £50,000 cash in the bank.

Yet because his bank decided it didn't wish to support the construction industry, he failed the test that required banks only to lend according to their pre-shutdown criteria. He was rejected for a government-backed loan last week.

"My accountant said, 'You can put off paying your VAT.' But that's up to date. They said, 'Well, you can put off paying national insurance' - but I'd kept that up to date too. So for doing the right thing - I can't get any help," he told the BBC.

So far, banks and financial institutions have lent more than £1.1bn to small and medium-sized enterprises under the government's coronavirus loan scheme, according to figures released by UK Finance on Wednesday.

More than 6,000 loans have now been provided, with an average value of about £185,000.

But the message from small firms and politicians is that loans are being approved too slowly - and that the government must bring in urgent reforms to the scheme to stop businesses going bust.

Among the scheme's critics is shadow business secretary Ed Miliband, who says it is "simply not working well enough".

He added: "The chancellor must move to a 100% guarantee of loans for smaller businesses as other countries have done. In this economic emergency, it is the right thing to do."

The British Chambers of Commerce said that only 2% of UK firms had so far secured the loans.

Businesses are clamouring for help and will be exasperated at the tally of crisis loans that banks have succeeded in giving out.

Six thousand is way short of the number of applications and is a tiny fraction of those who face a cash flow crunch.

Many bosses have just days. They have to find a way to pay wages at the end of the month.

It is true that the rate of lending has accelerated. And the word from within the banking world that four out of five of the loans are being approved.

But everyone wants this scheme to work faster and for the money to support wages for furloughed workers to be made available as soon as possible.

Urgent reforms

The Treasury said it was taking "unprecedented action to support business".

It said that action included £330bn in business loans and guarantees, paying 80% of furloughed workers' wages and giving £3bn cash grants to a quarter of million small businesses, as well as tax deferrals.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has also previously ruled out the taxpayer giving 100% backing for the loan scheme.

"When people say I should take 100% of the risk, it's not really me, it's actually all of us, it's the taxpayer taking 100% of the risk of the loans defaulting," he said.

Loan problems

Ministers brought in the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme with promises that they would do whatever it took to support firms hit by the shutdown.

Government-backed loans were to be available to all firms that were solvent and trading when the shutdown began.

The Treasury revamped the loans scheme two weeks ago, while banks said they worked through the Easter weekend to boost lending.

But some business owners have told the BBC that they have not been able to access loans or grants.

Image caption,
Dave Moran's firm had a full order book before the coronavirus lockdown

Dave Moran, who previously worked as a senior executive in the pharmaceutical industry, owns UK Challenge, which runs corporate team-building events.

For the past two years, it has run at a loss as a start-up company, but was moving into profit this year, with a full order book before the lockdown was imposed.

"Rishi Sunak said, 'Whatever it takes,' and for me, those were good words," he said.

"If you'd spoken to me three to four months ago, our 2020 was on course to be a bumper year. Essentially we lost everything overnight.

"We are keeping going. I've not laid off staff - we're still paying full pay. We're in a position where our money will run out."

He was told by his council that the business couldn't get grants because it is a sub-tenant in a building and his bank has not signed up to the scheme.

"You've got the Business Minister, Alok Sharma, and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, saying, 'We won't let bureaucracy get in the way,' but that's exactly what's happening," he said.

The National Association of Corporate Finance Brokers (NACFB), whose members arrange finance for thousands of small business clients, said that even after a government overhaul announced two weeks ago, it was still taking far too long to apply.

Each application took more than five hours to get through the necessary paperwork, it said.

Paul Goodman, chair of the NACFB, said that was far too slow to allow the country's five million small businesses to access cash in time.

"The way it's set up, banks are still having to work out whether or not they would lend to the business if it were normal times," he said.

"That means there's nothing for customers who have a perfectly viable business, but can't show all the banks require to get a government-backed loan."

According to the BCC's figures, 17% of businesses had only enough cash to last a month, while 36% had less than three months' cash reserves.

MPs on the all-party group for Fair Business Banking say the scheme must be made much simpler and faster to prevent small and medium-sized enterprises from going under.

Image caption,
Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake warns that without speedier loans, businesses will go bust

Kevin Hollinrake, who chairs the group, said: "We've seen many more loans being approved, which is clearly great news.

"But we need the process to be simpler and faster in terms of getting this money into bank accounts.

"We also need better data on a daily basis to see the numbers of applications being made, the numbers being refused and the numbers being approved. We only have days to get this right."

He said that next week, many small businesses will have to make payroll and supplier payments.

"We need to get this money into business bank accounts this week or we'll see lots of small and medium-sized enterprises start to go bust from next week," Mr Hollinrake warned.

HM Treasury said: "The loan scheme is designed to give banks and businesses confidence, and ensure that viable businesses get the support they need.

"We're working closely with banks to ensure we get finance to those who need it as soon as possible and continually look to review our support to see what improvements can be made," the spokesperson added.