It has been a challenging year for businesses in many different industries, and smaller companies have been particularly impacted by the onslaught of Covid-19.
The Government has brought in a range of support packages to help businesses throughout the crisis, with emergency grants for small businesses among the first to be announced in April last year.
The Small Business Grant Fund meant firms in England which pay little or no business rates were entitled to a one-off cash grant of £10,000 from their local council. It was offered alongside the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund – a one-off payment of up to £25,000 – for small-to-medium-sized businesses.
Figures from the House of Commons Library show that in Preston, 2,821 businesses were identified as eligible for either grant, with the Government initially allocating £35 million to Preston City Council to divide among companies in the area.
By the time both schemes had wrapped up in September, 2,735 firms had received £32.4 million – 93 per cent of the initial pot.
Small firms excluded from these grants could still receive cash through a discretionary scheme which meant councils could award up to £25,000 to businesses struggling financially during the crisis.
Overall, Preston City Council had handed out 214 discretionary grants totalling £1.6 million by the end of September – all of its initial allocation.
Although shops, pubs and restaurants welcomed customers back as the first wave eased, the arrival of the second wave in autumn meant strict social distancing measures had to be introduced once again.
The three-tier system came into effect in mid-October and was shortly followed by another national lockdown between November and December, prompting the need for further government support packages.
Grants were offered to firms that were forced to close, or stayed open but were severely impacted by these restrictions.
By January 17, businesses had received a further £2.2 million from Preston City Council, covering 1,267 properties in the area – an average of £1,774 per grant.
Pubs that mainly serve alcohol were also eligible for a one-off £1,000 payment if they were impacted by closures over Christmas – 44 had claimed the grant in Preston by mid-January.
Since November, local authorities have also had powers to award further cash to businesses which have not benefited from other grant schemes or need additional funding.
Preston City Council had given out 334 grants using this discretionary scheme by January 17, at a total of £761,375.
Nurseries and retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in England have also been given further support in the form of business rates relief – meaning companies in these sectors would not have to pay the levy for a year.
As of July 2020 – the latest figures provided by the HoC Library – 1,023 eligible properties had been relieved of paying £32.1 million in business rates.
Overall, it means businesses in Preston have received around £69 million in support so far, not including cash provided through income support programmes or the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
The Government's £5 billion restart scheme, which launched on April 1, will see non-essential retail business in England able to access up to £6,000, while businesses in the hospitality, accommodation, leisure, personal care and gym sectors will be eligible for grants of up to £18,000.
Councils have been urged in a letter to release grant funding to business owners “as soon as possible” to help boost the economy, after a warning that it had taken too long for previous funds to be released.
The letter, signed by small business minister Paul Scully and tourism minister Nigel Huddleston, also urged councils to be “as flexible as possible” in enabling pubs, cafes and restaurants to open Covid-secure outdoor seating areas.
Mr Scully said: “We have made extraordinary efforts to stand by small business owners. Now we need to press on and continue getting money to them in good time to ensure that our communities are ready to build back better following the pandemic.”
A spokesman for the Local Government Association said councils have had to come to terms with a "rapidly changing landscape and guidance".
He added that they are "working fast to ensure businesses can receive funding as quickly as possible".
News Editor, Lancashire Post