Uniquely among Greater Manchester councils, Manchester City Council has been using personal income support payments like Universal Credit and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to determine some residents’ eligibility for the Additional Restrictions Grant – a fund exclusively for business support.
It’s been a slow few months, rounding out a tough year, for Manchester resident Charlotte Ferguson, 32. As a driving instructor, she had to pull the handbrake on her work during the third lockdown.
Yet her business expenses stayed high. Even though she wasn’t teaching, she still had to pay to maintain and insure her car – a monthly cost of several hundred pounds.
Ongoing costs like this are why councils around the country have been paying out the government’s Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) to help businesses.
But in Manchester, Charlotte hasn’t been able to apply for it. Even though she would have been in any of Greater Manchester’s nine other metropolitan boroughs.
“It’s a postcode lottery,” Charlotte says. “Why should they get money and I don’t – am I not worthy? I still have the same job, I still have the same expenses.”
Although there has been debate about driving instructors’ eligibility for ARG support in some councils, Charlotte’s profession isn’t the main problem: some Manchester instructors were able to apply for what the council calls the Expanded Additional Restrictions Grant, which closed to applicants on 31 March.
However, that “expanded” grant was unavailable to company directors and sole traders who had received support through Universal Credit or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), as stated on the council’s website.
In email correspondence with MM, the council wrote: “It’s important to make clear that ARG is designed to support businesses, not to replace the income of an individual. There are other forms of individual support, via welfare payments (UC) and the government Self-Employment Income [Support] Scheme.
“If a company can demonstrate that they are in the priority sectors and need financial support to cover fixed commercial property costs – such as property lease payments, for example – they would be eligible for ARG.”
Despite her attempts, however, Charlotte has not been able to claim it. And the line the council draws between business and individual income support is precisely the problem she has been facing: money intended to support living costs, like rent and food, has had to be used for business expenses.
“I don’t understand how they expect people to pay business fees from Universal Credit,” Charlotte says. Losing money each month, she has has had to depend on her mother for support.
“I shouldn’t have to do this. I’ve had a job since I was 15 years of age, and I’m relying on my mum to pay my bills. It’s ridiculous.”
Sonia and Muhammad Naseem, 36 and 39, have also found themselves ineligible for the grant. Both work in driving instruction – Muhammad as an instructor with his own school, Sonia as an agent finding instructors students – and they run separate limited companies, both with high monthly expenses. They have five children.
Problems with their attempt to access the ARG (or Expanded ARG) included their receipt of Universal Credit and the fact they worked from home.
“Universal Credit at the moment doesn’t even cover our household costs,” Sonia says. “We’re expected to keep our businesses running as well. It’s just a complete nightmare.”
One successful applicant for the grant was Wesleigh Eager, 43, a Manchester-based potential driving instructor currently in training.
He was eligible because he couldn’t claim either SEISS or UC: he had received no personal income support at all.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare,” Wesleigh says, in solidarity with his fellow instructors. “The government has given local authorities these funds to help support businesses, and they’re throwing as many hurdles in front of people as possible.”
Driving lessons resumed this week, so the very worst of the crisis is hopefully behind the sector.
But Charlotte’s campaign for fair treatment isn’t over. She has been vigorously campaigning on the issue, drawing together a community of driving instructors, frustrated by the variation of approach between local authorities around the country.
She has also made multiple appeals to politicians including her local MP Lucy Powell and mayor Andy Burnham.
Although a fix hasn’t yet appeared, she remains optimistic that Manchester City Council might change its policy with a fresh round of ARG funding.
“Reopen it and make it fair,” she says.
The council additionally pointed out resources were stretched due to Manchester’s high concentration of businesses:
“Councils are having to make difficult decisions about how to most fairly distribute funding from Government – and who gets the support.
“This funding is based on population, not business numbers. Manchester has a higher proportion of businesses compared to population than other GM Authorities (and other UK cities), which means that proportionally Manchester has less money per business.”
Main image: Driving instructor Charlotte Ferguson. Photo by Jennifer Sheeran