Every day, local authorities make decisions which affect the lives and businesses of hundreds if not thousands of people. In the weeks after the winter solstice, they will be making decisions which will determine the future of a global industry, the UK’s relationships with the rest of the world – and jobs, livelihoods and the economy on their local patch.
Those crucial decisions concern the distribution of the £1.5bn business rates relief pot being distributed to local authorities in England and via devolved governments, intended for the businesses most badly affected by the pandemic which have not received expanded retail discount.
The most recent debate about the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill suggests the government isn’t keen to discuss how it arrived at this figure, how it expects to distribute the cash, or the guidance which will accompany it.
Why does this matter to us?
The UK’s English language teaching centres, which attract students from all over the world and act as a gateway for tourism and universities, have been affected exceptionally badly by the pandemic.
Well before the UK locked down in March 2020, students were cancelling bookings and abandoning courses. Since then, lockdowns, travel restrictions and anxiety about Covid have meant English UK’s 340 fully-accredited English language centres members have lost over 80% of their business, with 91% of jobs affected.
Before Covid, our industry brought around £1.5bn annually into the UK economy and supported 35,000 jobs at all levels in schools, teaching centres, supply chains, and the tourism, leisure and travel sectors whose services make-up such an important part of the student experience. Not counted but equally important are many thousands who supplement their household income by hosting students in their homes.
Most language schools are SMEs. They tend to have large High Street premises which attract students and have enough spaces for classrooms and common rooms. Their rates are high, partly because of their size and situation and partly because although they are classed as D1 (for educational use) they are rated as B1 as if they were offices. Since ELT is largely seasonal, with most students travelling in spring and summer, the majority of schools have had little or no income since summer 2019. There is no home-grown customer group to which they can pivot and no chance of making up the shortfall with online learning.
When Rishi Sunak announced the business rates relief for the leisure and hospitality industry at the beginning of lockdown, we thought ELT centres would automatically be included, but they were not. We remain very grateful to the 17 local authorities which did supply the relief and helped to keep our member closure rate at just 15% to date.
The government has some awareness of the ELT sector’s problems but we believe has failed to act because we are not within the remit of a single Whitehall department. In October, Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister of State, Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities said a fellow peer had “wished to convey to me the plight of the English language teaching sector, an important sector that has suffered terribly throughout the pandemic. … We will confirm the eligibility of sectors in due course when we publish guidance in the proper way, but certainly, the English language teaching sector is one of those that we are looking at very carefully.” However, he said decisions on individual awards would be for local authorities.
What do we need?
We are urgently seeking help to ensure that the new business rates relief pot reaches the language schools, coach and tour operators and others which need it to survive till the better times come. We need BRR for three years, as provided to leisure, retail and hospitality. As the pot is limited, we are asking councils to create eligibility criteria which focus on businesses worst affected by the pandemic that have previously missed out on rates relief.
Help ELT in the short term, and we will repay in the longer term
We have worked tirelessly for recovery, reaching out to reassure and inform students and study travel agents. But recovery is dependent on our centres surviving a few more months, given the seasonal nature of the industry. The UK needs to retain the capacity and expertise to teach returning and new student markets. Holding off from action on unpaid rates and granting business rates relief could be the difference between survival and collapse for many of these centres, and whether or not local economies will enjoy the benefits of students returning in 2022.