Forest of Dean: small businesses counting on further help from UK budget

For the moment, the narrow gauge locomotives of the Perrygrove Railway in the Forest of Dean are tucked away in their engine shed but over the next few weeks the team will bring them out, check they are in working order and from 12 April, the hope is that it will be full steam ahead for the visitor attraction again.

“We’re very excited,” said Katherine Nelson-Brown, who runs the heritage railway on the edge of the market town of Coleford with her husband, David. “The lockdowns have been very hard. It’s been a difficult year but we’ve survived.”

The Forest of Dean, famed for its walking and biking trails and its wild boar, feels a long way from Westminster but Nelson-Brown said local people would be watching Wednesday’s budget with keener interest than usual.

For the Nelson-Browns the continuation of the reduction of VAT from 20% to 5% is vital. “It will be massive for us if that stays,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing on our radar. There’s an end in sight to the Covid crisis but the help can’t suddenly stop. We need a cushion to get through the next 12 months.”

In the town centre, the florist Claire Weston is still throwing away plants she had bought to sell over Christmas before Covid restrictions emptied the town. “It’s very sad.” She is also having to deal with an increase in the cost of flowers coming from mainland Europe. “They have gone up by 30%. That isn’t helping.”

Claire Weston setting up a folding table and screen outside her shop
Claire Weston, a florist based in Coleford, says her turnover has fallen by £50,000 over the past year. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Guardian

Weston said her turnover had dropped by £50,000 over the last 12 months and called for the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to continue backing small businesses – and supporting the high street. “A lot of businesses will go under if the help vanishes,” she said.

Pat Scott, who runs the fruit and veg shop in Market Place, said Brexit had caused her prices to rise. “Not so long ago we were charging £1.20 for four large Spanish oranges. Now it’s £2 for three.” She, too, called for help for town centres. “The town is so quiet. It’s going to take a long time for it to recover.”

The Forest of Dean is the constituency of Mark Harper, the Tory MP who chairs the Covid Recovery Group, which is campaigning for an earlier exit from lockdown.

In Coleford, one business, the Spa Rituals salon, planned a lockdown-breaking “wellness day” at the end of January, inviting people along for meditation and yoga sessions. The police made it clear people would be breaking the law if they attended and stationed a car outside to stop the event taking place.

But most business people seemed to favour a more cautious approach. Greg Daniel and Vicky Irwin, who run the Dog House pub and Scoff’s coffee shop, said they were happy to be a bit more patient.

Vicky Irwin and Greg Daniel, who has a dog on his lap, inside their empty coffee shop
Vicky Irwin and Greg Daniel inside their empty coffee shop. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Guardian

“For us, the worst thing has been the stop-start,” said Daniel. “If we reopen too quickly and have to lockdown again that would be terrible for consumer confidence. Let’s just wait a little longer.”

“When we reopen, it will be a bit like starting from scratch,” said Irwin. “We’ll be re-marketing ourself, building up our customer base again.” An extension of the furlough scheme for them was a must. “Small businesses need ongoing help,” said Irwin. “We need schemes and funding for the next 12 months to get us back on our feet.”

Arron Mitchell, the director of Platinum World Travel in Coleford, said many people were desperate to book holidays. “We’re having to carefully manage their expectations. People aren’t going to be jetting all over the world on 17 May. I think we have to go slowly and carefully.”

Arron Mitchell in a doorway
Arron Mitchell, who runs Platinum World Travel in Coleford, says he is having to manage would-be holidaymakers’ expectations. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Guardian

There are some who argue the government has to rein in spending quickly. Steve Jones, 22, a furloughed hospitality worker, said he worried that his generation would be paying extra taxes for the rest of his life. “The government seem to be intent on propping up every business. At some time they have to pull the plug and let business people sink or swim.”

Brian Robinson, a Gloucestershire county councillor who resigned from the leadership of the Forest of Dean Conservative group and left the party in protest at its management of the Covid crisis and Brexit, called on the chancellor to tell the difficult truths about the economy.

“The problems we have got are going to be long-term ones.” he said. “We’re not going to snap back as if nothing has happened.” Robinson said he feared the government was still chasing popularity rather than taking difficult decisions about the economy. “What we are spending isn’t sustainable.”

Ben Cunningham and his wife, Carys, are juggling caring for a newborn and running a walking holiday business, Celtic Trails. One of their headaches is that their most popular route, Offa’s Dyke Path, weaves in and out of England and Wales, which have different lockdown restrictions and exit plans. “That makes it even more complicated,” he said.

The Cunninghams believe their business won’t be back to full power before spring 2022. They hope the chancellor will extend furlough, the VAT cut for hospitality and perhaps instigate some form of UK holiday scheme along the lines of the “eat out to help out” campaign. “It’s been incredibly challenging. We need bit more support to get through.”


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