By Chris Hobson, Director of Policy and External Affairs at East Midlands Chamber
“Lockdown has been a gruelling time for everyone for a whole variety of reasons, but people in Leicester have bore the very brunt of it.”
Finding out, just days away from so-called “Super Saturday” – when pubs, restaurants, barbers and non-essential shops were able to reopen – that the city would be placed under new localised restrictions was a hammer blow.
Businesses that had forked out on perishable stock in anticipation of welcoming back customers were suddenly out of pocket, heaping on financial pressure during already extremely challenging circumstances, while the mental health impact on Leicester’s citizens should not be underestimated amid this setback.
In the face of adversity, though, we saw the true community spirit of Leicester shine through in the #TogetherInHope campaign while we waited for the politicians to find a solution.
A coalition of city leaders including the University of Leicester’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Leicester City Football Club CEO Susan Whelan and Bishop of Leicester Martyn Snow used social media to highlight messages of encouragement and acts of kindness for one another that had sprung up during the local lockdown.
At the Chamber, we were proud to join the campaign – which was also backed by high-profile personalities including Gary Lineker, Jonathan Agnew and Rosemary Conley – and showcase this wonderfully diverse city with a great history.
While the overarching reason for the local lockdown was understood as necessary for wider public safety, the Government’s reluctance to provide any additional, tailored support to Leicester businesses is a massive mistake.
Without additional help to the relief packages that were offered at the start of national lockdown, there will unfortunately be a greater number of business failures in organisations that, without the impact of the forced closures, would otherwise be fundamentally sound.
We, along with many others, have lobbied Government to provide additional support. We have argued this needs to be in the form of grants, as opposed to debt, to prevent storing up greater problems for 12 months’ time once interest rates pick up or deferred VAT needs to be paid.
We have even made suggestions of where this funding might be found, drawing on under spend in original grant money existing in local authorities across the country.
Leicester and the surrounding authorities – along with any future local authorities affected – should be able to access some of this pot to deliver hyperlocal support to businesses impacted.
In terms of the country’s wider economic recovery, we support proposals to “build, build, build” in a “New Deal” strategy that prioritises infrastructure and job creation.
It’s important the East Midlands, which has the lowest spend per head of any region in the country when it comes to transport and infrastructure, receives its fair share of that investment.
We have some exciting development plans around the planned HS2 station at Toton, soon-to-be-decommissioned Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station and East Midlands Airport.
The latter is the UK’s busiest pure freight airport and adjacent to East Midlands Gateway, which is already proving to be a magnet for blue-chip firms like Amazon and DHL in creating major logistics hubs.
Meaningful public investment into these projects is crucial to the region’s future economic prosperity.
One of the biggest challenges facing the country right now is the skills gap. With more bad news in the jobs market inevitably around the corner as the furlough scheme winds down, we must find ways of getting people back into work.
The Government’s £2bn Kickstart Scheme, which aims to find employment for the 16 to 24-year-olds who are expected to be worst affected by the tide of job cuts, is welcomed but we need to make sure we are equipping young people with the right skills from school to the workplace – and everywhere in between. Ensuring they can gain access to the jobs that are created is also a priority.
As we move into the post-Covid world, it’s not enough to just halt the economic slide. Instead, we need to find ways to stimulate growth – and incentivising businesses to invest will be crucial in the Chancellor’s Budget this autumn.
We are a pioneering nation, and region, so innovation should be encouraged to prepare us for the “new world”. To this end, the Government should explore forward-thinking measures such as R&D tax credits and further extensions to the annual investment allowance.
“Until early March, the biggest issue on the agenda for business was how it would be impacted by Brexit.”
But with the world in crisis, this has taken a back seat and a side effect of the pandemic is that many organisations don’t have the bandwidth to be able to focus on preparing for the end of the transition period on 1 January 2021.
While a lack of daily Brexit talk in the news might be a welcome respite for some people, the fact it has dropped down the order of priorities is not a good thing for businesses that need to prepare.
Cash flows are particularly tight due to Covid-enforced lockdown and this restricts the ability to stockpile in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which remains a distinct and worrying possibility.
The Chamber runs regular Business Readiness for Change workshops offering guidance, models and tools to help companies in the region get used to post-Brexit life, covering everything from protecting intellectual property rights and tax planning to workforce management and customs declaration.
“Despite having to navigate some stormy waters in recent months, there remains plenty of bright spots ahead for the East Midlands.”
As mentioned earlier, the HS2 station at Toton can act as a catalyst for a real step change in the region’s infrastructure, while the Government’s focus on a post-coronavirus green recovery plan plays into our industrial strengths.
We have some fantastic companies and universities that have a great offer when it comes to low-carbon products and research, while our manufacturing expertise and coal-burning heritage means we have the assets to play a central role in the UK’s strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The sectoral diversity that exists in the region should mean we have strong in-built resilience against global economic challenges like the one we are facing right now.
There will no doubt be some scars when we come out of the pandemic but, in the medium to long term, we can hopefully move towards a stronger and fitter economy.