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‘Central belt bias’ claim in row over access to lifeline Covid business relief

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A north-east business owner who suffered a £3million drop in turnover during lockdown has accused the Scottish Government of “neglecting” calls for financial help in the region while giving hundreds of thousands of pounds to central belt competitors.

The claim by King Foods managing director John King follows concerns about access to a Covid support scheme in a tight timeframe around Christmas.

The fund was first publicised on December 5 last year with just a nine-day window for submissions and supporting evidence to help the food and drinks sector.

Mr King, whose Aberdeen-based company supplies chilled and frozen food to hotels and restaurants from Elgin to Dundee, said: “I’ve been left with no option but to get a loan while competitors got as much as half a million.

“It wasn’t advertised enough and there was not enough time to properly go through everything. I went to the bank, the council, no one I knew had heard of the details.

“The government gave businesses nine days to go through accounts, look at turnover and supply evidence. It’s crazy.”

Where did the grants go?

The Scottish Government confirmed there were 113 applications, including from businesses in the north and north-east. But the list of 42 approved grants show there was none in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire or Moray.

Grants as high as £500,000 were approved for companies in regions including Glasgow, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian.

There were also smaller successful applications from companies in Perth and Kinross, Shetland, Angus, Highland and Dundee, as well as some firms in the south of Scotland.

In total, £5.5million was available for companies struggling to cope with the knock-on impact of lockdown across hospitality.

Mr King hopes the lifting of restrictions will get business back to normal but hotels and restaurants are still in trouble. Some have been forced to shut for good because of the pandemic.

It is of great concern that it appears companies in non-central belt areas appear to be largely neglected relative to award of funding.

– Managing director John King

Mr King said stock was down £300,000 over the year at the family-run business, which operates from its base in Torry.

“Furlough was a God-send,” he said. “But I had to rely on a government-backed loan while the north-east has missed out on this funding.”

His firm employs around 70 people, selling produce such as frozen food and fresh fish to restaurants across the region.

Mr King, in a letter to MSPs asking for help, added: “It is of great concern that it appears companies in non-central belt areas appear to be largely neglected relative to award of funding.”

Conservatives now want the SNP Government to reopen the scheme to help businesses who were not aware of the support.

North East MSP Liam Kerr.

North East Tory MSP Liam Kerr said: “Wholesalers such as King Foods are crying out for lifeline funding like this and I’m absolutely appalled at the situation they have been left in by the Scottish Government.

“It’s astonishing and quite frankly disgraceful that the fund hasn’t helped a single firm from the north-east and I will continue to seek answers as to why this is.

“Not only that, but firms like King Foods weren’t even notified of the fund existing which makes this situation all the more frustrating.

“There is practically no understanding of the problems wholesalers face from the SNP Government and that attitude must change.”

Mr Kerr wrote to Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes, a Highlands MSP, to raise his concern.

In her response, Ms Forbes said the Scottish Wholesale Food and Drink Resilience Fund was set up as a response to concerns in the sector.

She stated the deadline of December 31 was to meet temporary EU rules and deal with “uncertainty” from the formal Brexit deadline.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes

“The fund closed on 13 December and received a total of 113 applications, which comprised of applications from businesses right across Scotland, including the North and North East,” Ms Forbes confirmed in a letter.

“Each application was assessed by an independent panel on a case by case basis with consistent decision making being based on the evidence provided and key parameter limits set due to the restricted amount of money available within the fund.

“In January 2021 an independent panel reviewed any cases whereby unsuccessful applicants were unhappy about the outcome of their decision. All reviews have now been completed and the fund is closed.

“This was a discretionary fund and there was no automatic entitlement to any grant.”

Awards from the Scottish Wholesale Food and Drink Resilience Fund were published on the Scottish Government website.

The largest £500,000 awards went to William Morton in Glasgow, Braehead Foods in East Ayrshire, JB Foods in Midlothian, Allson Wholesale in Fife and Dunns Food and Drinks in South Lanarkshire.

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