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Coronavirus: Belfast market traders plead for help after failing to get cash from fund aimed at smaller firms

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St George’s Market shut on March 16 just as traders were preparing for the spring and summer boost

St George’s Market shut on March 16 just as traders were preparing for the spring and summer boost

St George’s Market shut on March 16 just as traders were preparing for the spring and summer boost

St George’s Market shut on March 16 just as traders were preparing for the spring and summer boost

St George’s Market shut on March 16 just as traders were preparing for the spring and summer boost

Traders from Belfast's most renowned market have said they have received little or no support during the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many sole traders, including those with stalls at the shuttered St George's Market, are unable to access a hardship fund set up for small businesses hit by the crisis.

The traders have written to Economy Minister Diane Dodds and the Executive to ask for some sort of support, possibly a grant scheme for individual entrepreneurs unable to get money from the Micro-Business Hardship Fund, other grants or relief.

Cathy McLaverty, chair of the St George's Traders Committee, said they were told they could apply for Universal Credit or self-employed income support.

But she said the latter takes nine weeks to arrive and is for personal, not business expenses.

Bricks and mortar businesses were able to avail of rate and rent holidays and various grants of between £10,000 and £25,000 - but sole traders have received no such support, said Ms McLaverty.

Although the current building was built in 1896, there has been a market on the St George's site since 1604, which has thrived through the toughest times, becoming part of the fabric of Belfast. It is Ireland's oldest continually operating market, but the pandemic has left present day traders facing their most challenging crisis yet.

St George's shut on March 16 just as traders were preparing for increased traffic in the spring and summer and had spent money ahead of the expected boost.

Traders are bracing for a long downturn, particularly as they depend to a large degree on overseas visitors, who are not expected to return this year in any large numbers.

"The high street has had help. We have nothing and believe we are entitled to some sort of a grant, we're not asking for £10,000," Ms McLaverty said.

"We still had expenses and were waiting nine weeks on money coming through, but that is personal money to put food on the table and has nothing to do with business."

Ms McLaverty, who runs a stall selling jewellery and ladies' accessories, said she helps represent 200 traders in St George's but said many other sole traders are affected and had received little help.

A discretionary fund to help businesses excluded from grant support should be established to help some companies and sole traders navigate the financial difficulties caused by the pandemic, Alliance MLA Andrew Muir has said. The North Down MLA added: "Earlier this month the UK Government established a discretionary fund in England to accommodate certain small businesses previously outside the scope of the business grant funds schemes.

"The Scottish Government has also established a self-employed hardship fund for those unable to access the UK-wide self-employment income support scheme.

"I would urge the Department for the Economy to consider establishing similar schemes in Northern Ireland to help businesses who are otherwise being left high and dry."

Sean McCann, who has run his Sizzle & Roll stand in St George's Market for around 15 years, said that stall owners pay a substantial amount of money to Belfast City Council to operate their businesses.

While Mr McCann said he is in a financially sound position because of the length of time he has been in business, younger traders working stalls for maybe two or three years may face difficulties.

"Self-employed income support is quite complicated and some may not be eligible and not entitled to anything," Mr McCann explained, adding that for others their most recent income is not taken into account and it is based on net earnings, not gross.

"I was talking to one younger person who has three children and over three months will receive £2,100."

Mr McCann is not optimistic that any more grants will be made available but believes some arrangement could be made between the traders, Belfast City Council and the Executive over the payment of stall fees.

The Department for the Economy said it is not possible for every business needing financial aid.

It said: "There is a limit to the funding available for the economic support schemes and it is recognised this will not be able to support all those calling for assistance.

"We will continue to monitor the situation and consider where any additional funding available could best be utilised.

"Self-employed sole traders with employees may be eligible for the NI Micro-business Hardship Fund, although we appreciate that the majority of St George's market traders may not fall into this category."

Economy Minister Diane Dodds told her Stormont scrutiny committee last week that cash is not available to support all businesses.

"If we were to take all of the business in Northern Ireland who are not eligible for the hardship fund and provide £10k to those businesses, that would cost another £890m," Ms Dodds had said. "If we were to provide £10k to registered businesses with 0 or 1 employees, we would be looking for another £350m."

Belfast Telegraph