Coronavirus: Could rent demands finish off NI businesses?

By John Campbell
BBC News NI Economics & Business Editor

  • Published
empty shopImage source, PA Media

"We've been told to suspend the economy and restart it in six months. The landlords are not suspending anything - they want full payment."

Those were the words from Northern Ireland retailer Pete Boyle when he spoke to me last week outside his flagship store in Belfast.

He started his business as a street stall and built it into the Argento jewellery chain.

It now has branches across the UK and Ireland.

Image caption,
Pete Boyle fears the impact of coronavirus could overwhelm his business

But Mr Boyle fears the impact of coronavirus could overwhelm his business.

He faces a particular problem in relation to the way retailers are being grant-aided in Northern Ireland.

But ultimately, the issue comes down to rent and that is something that goes far beyond his company.

Image caption,
Argento has branches across the UK and Ireland

The government has moved to help locked-down businesses by removing some of their costs - most notably, the state is paying 80% of employees' normal wages through the coronavirus jobs retention scheme.

For many firms, particularly in retail, their next biggest cost is rent and that money is still due.

Across the UK, grants of up to £25,000 have been made available to retailers and other businesses.

The money is not specifically for rent but, in practice, that's how a lot of it will be spent.

Mr Boyle's particular issue is that in Great Britain, grants are being made available to every shop in a chain, but in Northern Ireland each business can only get one £25,000 grant, no matter how many shops it operates.

He runs about 20 shops in Northern Ireland, so the grant will only cover about two weeks' rent, whereas elsewhere in the UK, it would have been up to six months.

Even for businesses in a better position, their grant money won't last forever, and if they are prevented from trading they will ultimately default on their rent.

Image source, NigelAndrews
Image caption,
Offices and shops across Belfast and elsewhere in lie empty, but rent still has to be paid

The Stormont Executive has matched the UK government in giving emergency protection to commercial tenants.

However, Finance Minister Conor Murphy said this week that some landlords are trying to find a way around that.

"I am disappointed to learn that some landlords are seeking to enforce a right of repossession or forfeiture of the lease for non-payment of rent," he said.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Conor Murphy appealed to landlords to show leniency towards tenants

"I accept this is a challenging time for everyone, however, I would appeal to landlords to show leniency to businesses. We must work together to help businesses survive through this pandemic."

Some landlords are deferring rental payments.

NILGOSC, a public sector pension fund, is a significant commercial landlord in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK, with more than £800m invested in property.

Its chief executive, David Murphy, said: "It's in no one's interest that good retailers could enter into administration due to short-term cash flow problems."

Image source, PA Media

The fund's property manager has been arranging extended deferrals for those tenants deemed high risk, mainly in the retail sector.

For those deemed less risky, the amount deferred is less, with each decision made on a case-by-case basis.

'Responsible approach'

"We are fortunate, as a pension fund we are a long-term investor and therefore can bear a reduced income now, assuming it will be made up in the relatively near future by those tenants who ordinarily have a strong covenant," Mr Murphy said.

He added that he hopes other investors "will take a similar responsible approach".

Deferrals create welcome breathing space, but, ultimately, the rent money is still going to have to be found from businesses which are under huge stress and may not be able to trade again for months.

This was an issue identified at an early stage of the crisis by Conor McCabe, a Dublin-based writer and researcher on economics.

'I wish that were enough'

In the wake of the Irish government's wage subsidy scheme, he tweeted: "There is a growing perception - a consensus even - that if we look after wages, then businesses will be able to pick up where they left off once the coronavirus crisis passes. I wish that were enough.

"In Ireland, it means that there are thousands of businesses that cannot generate income, but, under current arrangements, they are being treated for the purposes of rent, debt and utilities as if they can and nothing has happened.

"When the economy wakes up, we cannot pretend it generated the same income as before while it was under sedation."

He turned his tweets into a briefing paper for the Unite trade union, urging governments to think about enforcing forgiveness of rental debts for the duration of the crisis.

He acknowledged this would have a significant effect on the balance sheets of banks and property management companies.

But he believes the aim should be to push the debt into the world of finance, where almost unlimited support measures are being provided by central banks.

"The European Central Bank (ECB) has already relaxed banking rules to give banks more flexibility to absorb losses on loans and still operate as banks," he said.

Image source, DeFodi Images
Image caption,
Conor McCabe says the ECB and Bank of England have learned from the 2008 crisis

"It has also unleashed a set of liquidity mechanisms to ensure that both banks and corporations have a continued cash flow, even where they have increased levels of non-functioning loans and assets on their books.

"SME debt should be channelled where possible through the books of banks in order to come under the purview of the ECB and feel its effect."

This is radical thinking, but Mr McCabe says plenty of economic measures, which once seemed fanciful, have been implemented in recent weeks.

"The measures already announced show that the ECB and the Bank of England have learned from the 2008 crisis and will do what it takes to keep financial flows operating and accommodate large-scale debt restructuring if the political will is there to facilitate the process."