Like other post-industrial areas, the town of Pontypool suffers from empty shop units, run-down high streets and above average unemployment. These problems have become common following the decline of traditional industry but have been exacerbated in Pontypool by other factors, such as organisations or people with no connection to the area buying up commercial property as investments.
The Council recognised that many people in the town had small businesses, or wanted to start one, and set up shop in the town. Efforts were often hampered however by a lack of appropriate support and a disconnect between what was offered by national programmes and grants and what small, often micro-, businesses needed on the ground.
The Council applied to Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund to help rectify this and put in place a pilot providing place-based, hyper-local support to small businesses. This included mentoring, test-trading opportunities, meantime space, training, small start-up grants and marketing support.
The pilot project, Foundational Economy Torfaen (FET), began in February 2020 from a new ‘work-hub’ in Pontypool Indoor Market. Despite the impact of Covid it has already contributed to visible positive change in the area.
FET Project Officer Alyson Jones believes that the only way that nurturing and catalyst support can be offered to these small ventures is by really seeking to listen and understand their issues. Her first step was to be proactive in phoning businesses to get a flavour of the community and the support that was needed.
This led to a range of support measure ranging from the ambitious and complex – such as exploring the development of a local procurement system – to the basic but absolutely essential – such as signposting sole traders to the right Council websites.
An early challenge that was identified was the high shop unit rents often commanded by out of town landlords with little motivation to lower prices or to split units into more affordable spaces. Whilst local landlords were more accommodating, FET also provided another solution through offering space in the indoor market at low-cost (£5/day) or, during COVID, no-cost rates. This proved crucial in enabling several innovative start-ups, such as Woolfall’s 3D Printing, to get off the ground.
The project has also provided bespoke, one-to-one mentoring to help businesses navigate systems and processes and to build the confidence and capacity to grow.
From support with accessing finance or sourcing local accountants to provide free consultations; to help with business plans, furlough or diversification in response to Covid, FET has sought to provide a tailored approach for each beneficiary. Focussed on ‘making the service work for people’, this has included phone calls to those who are digitally excluded and mentoring at a distance for those who cannot afford to travel or are self-isolating.
A huge range of social media events on marketing, local procurement and Business Doctor sessions have also been organised.
One beneficiary of FET support is High Street Fitness, a community interest well-being and fitness organisation. Set up by a group of qualified trainers and a doctor, it provides a low-cost gym to the community (discounts for those out of work) as well as mental health support and a training and qualifications programme.
FET supported High Street Fitness with start-up mentoring, working with Social Business Wales to provide specific, targeted support in developing a social business. FET further assisted in financial solutions necessary to fund setup, including finding them space in a unit New Look had recently vacated, overcoming potential challenges with the Local Development Plan which was focussed on retail, and linking the owners up with the Local Education Authority and the NHS, allowing them to take social prescriptions. High Street Fitness is now able to provide a much-needed community resource in the centre of town and is looking to develop a full NVQ scheme that could support more foundational economy skills and jobs in the area in future.
With an eye on this broader picture, FET has also worked with local anchor organisations to help develop local supply chains and explore local procurement, particularly in areas such as decarbonisation where future need is guaranteed.
Work with RSL Bron Afon identified skills gaps as a key issue and FET is now working with the University of South Wales to explore how these could be filled to enable local manufacture of solar panels and heat pumps.
13 months in to the project, Alyson – FET’s sole dedicated member of staff – has spoken to over 375 local businesses and worked with a wide range of cross-sector partners. Alyson believes it is the project’s hyper-local, human approach that is the root of its success.
“You have to build up relationships and trust with people, you have to become a trusted adviser. It is also not enough to provide support at a national level if local business does not have the confidence or knowhow to access it.” she explains.
Providing this level of human contact – Alyson also phones business regularly just to check in, whether or not the business has flagged they need support – demands enormous dedication and can exert an emotional toll.
One example was hearing from a sole trader who had set up a mobile vehicle-repair business in 2019 to ‘take herself off Universal Credit and make a better life for herself and her children’. As a non VAT- registered start-up without premises, she fell through the gaps in Covid-related support and was left with the stark choice of asking Alyson ‘Do I feed my children or pay my supplier?’
This experience was shared and escalated up through the Council to Welsh Government, adding to the calls for micro-businesses – the lifeblood of Pontypool and many other towns in the county – to not be forgotten in the Covid response. This trader eventually received support with FET’s help some 3 months after making initial contact.
This example highlights another crucial, intermediary role played by such projects in supporting local livelihoods and the families that depend on them. For Alyson, this – and seeing the ‘massive difference that FET has made’ – has been the most rewarding aspect of being part of the Challenge Fund community.
“The feedback from local business has been amazing – people are so appreciative they have someone physically there they can speak to and who they can get to know.” Alyson explains. It seems the local person is key, the human element providing confidence which a website cannot.
For more information, please see Foundational Economy Torfaen’s social media channels: