Driving instructors

Durham driving instructors turn to food banks after being ‘denied financial assistance’

Driving instructors in County Durham have been ‘sidelined’ and left ‘destitute’ after being denied financial aid during the pandemic, it has been claimed.

Sarah Gill, 33, who runs Durham-based Driver Skills North East, said Durham County Council failed to help instructors in the area after refusing them help.

The local authority told the instructors they were not eligible for the Additional Restrictions Grant which supports businesses that are not eligible for other schemes.

But the lack of financial support means instructors struggle to pay high overhead costs, including franchise fees, insurance and car finance payments, and their day-to-day bills.

Durham County Council says it “appreciates and understands the difficulties” faced by driving instructors and says there are funds available to claim.

Sarah said: “Driving instructors have pretty much been pushed aside.

“Government says go to council for further restrictions grant and get £500 but Durham County Council does not apply these criteria to driving instructors although many other areas of council have done.

“They are very happy that industries are built on the backs of people who had to go through driving school in the first place.

“If you don’t pay business fares or if you’re a taxi driver, you don’t get anything, but just because you don’t pay business fares doesn’t mean you’re not contributing to the economy.

“In the grand scheme it’s not a lot, but it’s the difference between a driver going to a food bank and not having to go.

“I know some of them have had to go to food banks, but that’s not something they’ll ever let go. It’s a huge difference in their lives.

Sarah believes around 200 driving instructors in County Durham are affected, many of whom face overhead costs of at least £630 a month.

She added: “When we contacted the council they said there were programs available but that was nothing compared to other companies.

“If you are a driving instructor, because you don’t have business premises, you are practically entitled to nothing.

“One of the council’s plans is that you would approach them for the takeover of your business.

“The problem is that the driving instructors have all the students sitting there, waiting to resume lessons.

“The diaries are all full for weeks and months as long as they can start again. The problem is now immediate, there is simply nothing.

“They don’t need to rebuild their business at all, the work is there, it’s interim.

“The Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency told us we weren’t allowed to work at all, we weren’t allowed to teach in any way and there was no financial support.

“The government program for the self-employed is great – if you qualify for it.

“But again, that only covers 80% of your profit. It doesn’t cover your ongoing expenses that you simply can’t give up.

“You have instructors paying franchise fees, car costs, insurance, all of that needs to be maintained through this lockdown.

“During the first lockdown, companies agreed to give you a financial break, but this time there is nothing.

“No one is willing to give you any leeway, and the government is not covering our costs.”

Sarah said instructors applied for Universal Credit, but it was a “drop in the bucket” for many of them because it didn’t cover their costs.

She said: “It covers their own living expenses, but for some of them it doesn’t cover business expenses.”

Sarah said the driving school, which she runs with her husband, is franchise-based and has stopped charging fees to drivers.

A Driver Skills North East instructor

She said: ‘As much as it forces us to continue to fund the driving school out of our own pockets, I’d rather we did that than the guys got out of debt, or had a decision to pay a franchise fee or put food in the bellies of their children.

“But we know there are much larger franchise fees that charge the fee and it’s £208 a week for some.

“It’s just the financial hole that so many instructors have gotten themselves stuck in.”

Mary Readman, Durham County Council’s transactional services manager, said that in addition to the National Business Grant schemes, the government has also made funds available through the Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG).

She said: “This is being used to fund a discretionary policy to support businesses that do not have their own corporate rate account but are still incurring fixed property costs and occupying business premises, as well as some other sectors.

“This funding is also needed to fill the large projected gap to support businesses under the Local Restriction Support Grant (Open) scheme.

“In addition, we have also recently taken the decision to extend our local scheme to make one-off payments to licensed taxi and transport drivers in Hackney, given their intrinsic connection to the leisure and hospitality industry.

“We are also using some of the funding to enhance business recovery grants, administered by our Business Durham team, to help businesses with their coronavirus recovery plans.

“All these payments will have to be taken care of by our ARG.

“In developing our policy for implementing these programs, we took a common approach with the other councils in the North East region.

“As the funding is in place until the end of March 2022, we need to carefully consider how best to use it to support businesses that may be outside of the support currently offered.

“We are working closely with the other regional local authorities to fully consider the future use of the funding and we are also taking into account feedback from local businesses.

“To our knowledge, no council in our area currently provides grants to the driving instructor sector; However, we appreciate and fully understand the challenges faced by a number of home-based businesses in our county.