How to restart an inclusive economic recovery in Bristol post-COVID-19

Today’s blog comes from Fuad Mahamed, CEO of Ashley Community Housing.

It is a well-publicised fact that COVID-19 has hit Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities hardest. According to a UK Government report, 17% of COVID-19 patients are from BAME communities.

The diverse BAME community was already suffering from poor financial resilience, greater mental health issues and an inability to withstand shocks given the higher proportion of social exclusion and poverty they face in British society.

However, what attracted the attention of the country is the selfless bravery of this community in leading the battle against COVID-19 in the UK.

Immigrant key workers leading the COVID-19 battle
The recent Windrush scandal and the rise of hate crime following Brexit have been relegated to the rear-view mirror given the selfless and exemplary role BAME NHS staff played and continue to play in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first 10 doctors in the UK who have died from the virus were all BAME. And it is not only within the NHS that immigrant key workers are vital. It has come to light the huge role BAME communities play in other key worker roles: delivering food, keeping us clean, driving buses, taxis and trains, growing our food and delivering our post.

Senior government officials are now rightly publicly questioning the wisdom of a tougher Australian style point-based immigration system for migrant workers. It is clear we need them desperately to fill many vacant positions crucial for our daily lives and overall national success.  Whilst this is not headline news for many of us, the vital role of the jobs filled by the BAME community is finally getting the public and political attention it deserves. 

Immigrant entrepreneurs leading economic recovery
With the COVID- 19 pandemic, our efforts have been focused on fire-fighting the issue and gradually improving our knowledge and responses to it. However, we must think of the long-term implications for creating a resilient post COVID-19 society, one that is built on the foundation of inclusive economic recovery. The pandemic has already taught us: the chain of resilience is only as strong as its weakest link.

Bristol’s economy must recover if we are to remain a vibrant world-leading city. Bristol can be proud of its status as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, an academic powerhouse and a diverse city with huge reserves of untapped potential. To grow, we need all Bristolians to be able and be supported to participate in economic activities, including the vast energy and commitment of the BAME community.

This is no longer just about rhetorical inclusivity but about inclusivity which drives growth, creates jobs and integrates our city, communities and society.

So how can immigrant entrepreneurs reignite Bristol’s economy?
Like key workers from a migrant background, immigrant entrepreneurs play a vital role in our economy. The OECD has estimated that a foreign-born entrepreneur in a small firm creates an average of 1.4 to 2.1 jobs. Immigrants to the UK are almost twice as likely to start businesses – being responsible for 14% of job creation in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

Researchers at the University of Birmingham argue that in Britain new migrant firms ‘act as buffers against unemployment and social exclusion in disadvantaged communities, and as vehicles for the social integration of disparate migrant populations both with one another and into the British mainstream’.

As employment providers, they offer fellow migrants a haven from an often-hostile job market and foster social integration through contact with customers and business connections.

Focusing on small businesses recovery
The OECD has estimated that a foreign-born entrepreneur in a small firm creates an average of 1.4 to 2.1 jobs. Immigrants to the UK are almost twice as likely to start businesses – they are responsible for 14% of job creation in SMEs.

If we want to reignite our economy, we must reignite our small businesses. Small businesses in Bristol are reeling from the inability to do business as usual. Many sectors predict collapsed demand and economic uncertainty will stretch for months, if not years.

Participants said that government loans and financial support schemes are not accessible, are too complicated and, in some cases, not suitable or culturally sensitive as they are interest bearing loans.  Small business owners, and specifically those from BAME communities, are underrepresented in local and national recovery plans.

What we need to do
To mitigate economic fallout and small business failure post-COVID-19, we need targeted support for all small business owners, including BAME-led businesses facing even greater financial and operational challenges.

In an Entrepreneurship Support Project in Bristol led by a partnership between ACH, Engine Shed, the University of Bristol and West of England Growth Hub (part of WECA), we have learnt the barriers in the current business support ecosystem. These prevent many immigrant entrepreneurs from accessing support, markets and business networks that appear easy to access for others.

Targeted support for BAME entrepreneurs and small businesses also requires trust-building.  A long-standing lack of trust in some mainstream support services and business finance lenders has hindered access to vital support and finance.

We also need to address a lack of access to mainstream finance. Although the government has announced a £350 billion loan scheme for businesses, access to loans is hindered for many as these loans are interest bearing, or small business owners lack the ability to provide the collateral needed for access. Furthermore, access to banks is limited as many local banks in low-income communities have been closed.

Our Entrepreneurship Support Project found that a hands-on approach is needed to assist immigrant entrepreneurship, especially those with a refugee background. To help steer them, the Enterprise Facilitators found they needed to guide entrepreneurs through all stages of the process. They acted as counsellors, friends and sounding boards. They arranged microfinance loans, found marketplaces, engaged students as mentors, organised web pages and logo design, brokered introductions and networks and so much more. We learnt the importance of listening to participants and the need to boost social capital and networks.

The current business support ecosystem in Bristol needs to do more to encourage and support BAME businesses. They need rapid targeted support to open up their products and services beyond their ethnic enclaves. Pre-COVID-19 BAME businesses already knew the challenge of scaling-up: now we need them to scale up even more quickly to ensure an inclusive economic recovery in Bristol.

The wider Bristol economy needs a greater commitment to inclusive growth through targeted training skills and better long-term meaningful employment for all Bristolians.

This is how Bristol and many other diverse UK cities can fully recover and remain resilient against any future shocks. An inclusive economic approach will certainly foster societal cohesion and resilience, as well as city-wide prosperity. So far, the national collective spirit of COVID-19 has been cohesion, and we need to ensure this informs our sustainable recovery and we leave no one behind.

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