NORTH-EAST businesses are rallying around to create a unique fund that will help smaller firms in the region recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The fund, which is launched today, hopes to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds which it will distribute as grants to assist businesses in pulling through what could be the worst economic crisis for 300 years.

The not-for-profit venture, called the Open North Foundation, is being put together by people who were inspired by the way the region responded to the call to build ventilators and make personal protective equipment at the outbreak of the pandemic. But not every business was in a position to help, and so they have looked for other ways.

“Both my company and I wanted to make a real contribution to the pandemic and so the concept of providing financial and other support to aid the region’s recovery was born,” said Richard Swart, the chair of the foundation who is global sales director at Berger Group Europe in Peterlee.

“I can’t recall anything like this being established before from within the private sector and any initial nervousness I had about it as a concept has been overtaken by the overwhelming number of businesspeople eager to support.”

Mr Swart said the foundation already has “significant pledges” of funding behind it, but the immediate priority is to raise more money so that grants, initially expected to be between £1,000 and £5,000, can be given out.

He said: “There is a great deal of grant aid and other support available from the Government but, as we know, that will slowly start to be withdrawn and so there is a real opportunity and need for the business sector to come together and provide financial assistance to help the recovery of smaller, less resourceful businesses who, if they survive, will have a positive impact on the regional economy and create good jobs.”

Vice chair of the foundation is Colin Hewitt, a partner with solicitors Ward Hadaway in Newcastle. Directors include Teesside entrepreneur Claire Preston and North-East business manager for Barclays David Foreman. James Ramsbotham, of the North-East Chamber of Commerce, is among the foundation’s ambassadors, and The Northern Echo is one of its supporters.

Ms Preston said: “The North-East has a remarkable business community. One which is supportive and cohesive, populated by defiant, ambitious and determined people wanting the best for each other and the region.

“We now need the people of the North-East to rally and offer support and encouragement to our entrepreneurs, our employers of the future, to recognise and value their vital contribution to the local economy and provide an essential lifeline so that they are able to weather this storm.”

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