The Covid-19 poses challenges across the business sector, but community businesses, with tight margins and a reliance on grassroots links with their neighbourhoods, the crisis brings unique pressures.
For some – including co-op bookshops like Liverpool’s News From Nowhere or Southampton’s October Books – the obvious answer is to push the mail order side of their business, and these organisations have been actively promoting their services on social media since the pandemic hit the UK.
But for those that operate venues or events, the shutdown brings tough challenges. It’s a sad turn of events that saw Birmingham Co-operative Film Society go from celebrating its tenth anniversary with “cake, prosecco, singing and cheers” on 12 March to emailing its members a week later, telling them it would be suspending screenings for the next few months.
“We hope that the films we have already booked to show can be postponed without any substantial financial loss,” says chair Kate Palser, “but it’s hard to envisage what will happen when we can reopen – people may be more financially limited, wary of going out or, in the worst case, we may even lose members to Covid-19.
“Our secretary and a reasonable percentage of our members will be self isolating over the next 12 weeks or so due to age or illness. One of our members told us at the last meeting that she’d had two weeks at home having returned from northern Italy; our handmade and written invitation to the birthday celebration was, she told me ‘a ray of light in a dark place’. We will endeavour to continue to provide ‘rays of light’ – or at least points of contact – as far as we can during these troubling times.”
Groups like Birmingham Co-operative Film Society depend on their community, grassroots support, and maintaining this during the shutdown is a crucial question. “Our members are vital to our running and our resilience,” says Kate. “We have had details from Cinema For All [the national support body for community cinemas] of an option for people to watch certain films online for free; we’re planning to forward this as one way of maintaining links with members, along with making monthly suggestions of films (preferably ones with a message of hope and working together) which our members can enjoy at home and potentially discuss together on social media.”
But community businesses also have the bottom line to contend with: finance to repay, staff to look after, rent and other bills coming in. Co-operatives UK, which looks after UK co-ops, is in contact with the government trying to ensure that co-ops and community businesses are eligible for the emergency support package announced by the chancellor. The situation is changing fast, with concern that many small community organisations face difficulty accessing support.
Measures include a the worker retention scheme, covering the wage bill for 80% of a workers’ salary: all employers in the UK are eligible, with the Chancellor making specific mention of ‘not-for-profit’ enterprises and charities.
But for other measures, warns Co-operatives UK, “many organisations and businesses in the social economy will either be ineligible for many of these schemes, or will find of little practical help. We are pressing governments to do more to support the social economy.”
Plunkett Foundation, which supports rural community businesses in the UK, is running a page on its website with the latest support and advice for the sector, at https://plunkett.co.uk/covid-19-live/
Chief executive James Allcock said in a message to members: “We will be campaigning on behalf of community businesses and our members to make sure that your voice is heard. The situation is changing daily and Plunkett will be highlighting the unique needs of rural community businesses to decision makers as shape support packages and legislation.
“The Community Business Networks on Facebook have so far proved vibrant places for community businesses to exchange tips and experiences, and I recommend if you have not already done so signing up and seeing what others are saying.”
Such organisations have a tradition of community support. Community pubs across the country offer services ranging from dementia support networks to meals on wheels for isolated and vulnerable people, and this role is being stepped up in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Organisations like the Beer and Pub Association and Camra, which has launched its #PullingTogether campaign, are proposing support measures for the sector – including crowdfunding ad the sale of gift cards that can be redeemed when the pubs reopen. They are also highlighting the community services on offer, such as hot food deliveries.
And community pubs are stepping up to the plate helping their embattled communities. For instance, the Bevy, a community pub which serves a housing estate in Brighton, has invited locals to collect bags for free fruit and veg grown it its garden, and is helping community groups in the area in their coordinated efforts to supply meals on wheels to vulnerable and isolated people.
General manager Iain Chambers says: “I keep returning to this thought: ‘Trust is the new currency/shares now’, and it is communities, and community organisations, and the trusted individuals within them, whose stock is highest now.
“At the Bevy we started with need and immediately went into action, closing four days earlier than statutory. We didn’t run the numbers then act. Because of this, and the fact that for the Bevy crisis is kind of the norm and community is what we do, we moved ahead very quickly and are now being asked to advise others.”
And there is still a future after Covid-19 to plan for. Back at Birmingham Film Co-op, Kate Palser says: “Part of our planning for our celebratory year ahead was to hold an event bringing together community cinemas from around Birmingham and look at how we can support one another. Once it’s safe to do so, holding this event seems more important than ever, encouraging volunteer film fans to use screenings as a way to bring people together again.
“We’d like to show short co-op films (including the wonderful animated story of the Rochdale Pioneers and Sam Goes Shopping) and invite local University students to show their award winning one minute films, along with having speakers from Birmingham Film Festival and possibly from Cinema For All… but all of these are plans and wishes for the future.”