Bacta’s rapid response to the Coronavirus Crisis has earned high praise for the trade association and the team led by chief executive, John White. In an exclusive interview with Coinslot, White took time out of a punishing schedule to highlight the key points to come out of a rapidly changing and fast moving situation.
What more are you looking for from government in terms of securing jobs, business loans and grants?
The four key requests to Government at the moment are:
(1) To get the Job Retention Scheme amended to allow very short periods of work to be undertaken without the employee doing them to come off furlough and thereby jeopardise losing three weeks contribution towards their wages. This is an important measure because our industry has been told to close down. It is necessary for a regular check to be made on those premises for security or maintenance reasons. It is also a condition of insurance. We would not want the insurance industry to claim that the premises are empty and move to vacant property terms. This move wold save money in the long term.
(2) The Government must extend the rates relief we obtained for amusement arcades across the supply chain.Suppliers such as single site operators supplying pubs or manufacturers and distributors of machines have seen their businesses come to a grinding halt just as others have in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. They therefore need the same support. The relief will be enormously helpful in getting them through this crisis. Importantly if we don’t, these businesses may not be there when we get out of this nightmare. That will be just when we need them. If they have gone, customer demand will not be met and some of the customer facing businesses that have survived the crisis may well go under as a result which would negate all the work and support they are being given to get through this.
(3) In Scotland the £10,000 and £25,000 grants that are available for leisure businesses with a rateable value less than £51,000 (which we are also asking to be raised) are payable per business. In England it is rightly per premises. It is each premise that pays rates, that has to be staffed, is in effect its own cost centre or sub-business unit. It is the venue that is closed by government order not the business. The Scottish Government is being lobbied to follow a consistent approach to the rest of the UK.
(4) Finally we need Government to clarify to Local Authorities that they can either rebate or extend fees paid for Premises Licences. These premises are after all closed by Government order. That means none of the usual inspection work or oversight is being done, therefore costing the LA nothing. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for either a rebate to be paid or for an extension of a licence or a discount on next year’s licence to be introduced.
Can you explain the lease forfeiture moratorium and its importance to the sector?
Many business have leases on properties in which their businesses are located. The Government has said that no commercial tenant can be evicted for non payment of rent (this would in normal circumstances be a forfeiture of the lease).
This runs until the 30th June but can be extended by Government now the Coronavirus Act is on the statute book. Whilst many landlords and tenants are coming to arrangements on the payment of rents, it provides some comfort a business can’t be forced to leave a property it may well need when we get through this crisis. It is important to note this is not a payment holiday. The leasee still has to pay the rent.
How do you rate the government’s performance so far – has it listened to Bacta’s arguments?
There is no doubt that the Government has been listening. We have been working very closely with the CBI, Tourism Alliance, UKHospitality and the Scottish Tourism Alliance to ensure where business interests are aligned Bacta can add its substantial weight to the argument.
On the business side of things I think the Government has been pretty good. The measures are the right measures. They are not perfect and there are still many questions that need to be answered, however broadly speaking they have given a lot of companies half a chance of making it through even if they will be battered and bruised by the experience.
We could have done with some of the announcements a bit earlier but to be fair Civil Servants have been working day and night to get these support schemes in place. It is no wonder they are not perfect.
How effective do you think the measures will be in terms of helping Bacta members businesses, protecting the industry and securing jobs?
As I say, I think most businesses stand a good chance of getting through this although they will be battered and bruised. Clearly those with the bigger liquid reserves are going to be better placed.
However, with no income coming through there is going to be high burn rate and we simply do not know when we can open again. For the seaside operators we are potentially looking at the end of the season.
That is deeply worrying. We have already suggested to Government that they should move the Spring bank holidays to the Autumn to give sectors like us potentially a small boost.
What’s the latest information you have on how Bacta members are faring and their response to the pandemic?
I can’t praise Bacta members highly enough. When we listened to the Government’s announcement on what businesses needed to close, AGC and FEC operators responded instantaneously to Bacta’s advice to close, even though arcades were not specifically listed.
They wanted to do the right thing to help this country’s fight against the Coronovirus. There was no hesitation. One or two nonmembers stayed open but we spoke to them where we could and they closed either on the Saturday or Sunday. We then also got arcades specifically listed as part of the premises ordered to close. Since then members have been desperately trying to rearrange their businesses to protect their staff’s jobs and get the business ready for when this crisis is over and we can get back to providing fun for our customers.
There’s been at least one example of an arcade operator being wrongly accused by media of staying open when he was shut, using a photograph that was 5-years old as evidence. How is bacta responding to the use of such damaging ‘fake news’?
Thankfully there was very little of it. The article to which you referred used a stock image of a great arcade in Skegness that was indeed closed on the Saturday about which the article was referring. We have emphasised to government that 99.9% of our industry closed down within hours of the PM saying retail and leisure premises should shut and those very few nonmembers that stayed open were all shut by the end of the weekend.
I was furious with those that did stay open as not only did it reflect badly on the industry it jeopardised our request to ensure arcades were included in the rates relief for leisure businesses.
Bacta has been very active and energetic in how it has responded to the crisis. What would you like to say about the team at Bacta house?
They have been great. It’s at times like these that the quality of your people shine through. All the team are now working from home, but are taking members calls 24/7, helping where they can or referring them to me. They are 100 percent committed to helping members.
These contacts have I believe given Bacta members the intelligence they need to make the right decisions. They have given me the evidence to take to our politicians, civil servants and sister trade bodies to make the case for this industry.
Sadly we have had to furlough some of the team through this crisis but we intend to emerge better and stronger from the experience as there will still be plenty to do once the world gets back to normal.