The past year and a half has dramatically changed the business environment that we find ourselves in today. Many businesses have experienced their most turbulent operational periods to date – from those that sadly suffered the blow of financial loss and redundancies, to those that in fact saw periods of innovation and growth in the face of adversity.
But while much has been made of the challenges already fought, we must now look to the future and consider the shape of our economy to come. And it’s clear that the unique challenges we need to address right now are not the same as those that we have experienced throughout the pandemic – or indeed those that preceded it.
For the LEP, our partnership work across the local area means we have a direct insight into what businesses are currently saying ‘on the ground’, enabling us to remain closely in-touch and tapped-into the key issues impacting the private sector right now.
We know that mounting skills challenges, the acceleration of sectors like technology and the ending of furlough mean that the labour market is an extremely volatile space right now. Businesses need the right staff with the right skills and many are facing recruitment challenges, so developing a pipeline into key growth sectors has never been more important than at this pivotal moment for our economy.
Meanwhile, the international impact of the pandemic coupled with national challenges like driver shortages mean that supply chain issues remain a very real concern for our local businesses. What’s more, rising energy costs threaten to impact the way some businesses operate. And with the world gathering at COP26 in Glasgow this month to focus on cutting carbon emissions and finding ways to mitigate the impact of climate change, the need for businesses to play their part in these vital efforts has never been more prominent. But to ensure that businesses are empowered to act, we know that many SMEs still need support such as finance and advice to start this journey. Without access to the right information, materials or adequate conditions to operate, local businesses face obstructions to growth.
And here in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire in particular, we occupy a somewhat unique position as home to both urban and rural economies that face very different types of challenges. Like many of our country’s beloved high streets, the thriving city of Stoke-on-Trent faces a changing retail environment, but this in turn offers an opportunity to rethink and reshape the way we use local centres for the benefit of the community. Meanwhile, some of our beautiful rural areas in Staffordshire offer an appealing opportunity for home and hybrid workers to live and work, but investment in digital infrastructure and a commitment to urban-rural levelling-up will be integral to nurturing this environment.
We need to ensure that the right investment is secured for the right places to prosper. And that is why the role of the LEP has been integral over the past few years, to help resolve these issues and find solutions that work locally. This powerful collaboration of business and education leaders coming together with our local authority partners has enabled up to listen and understand issues at a local level and amplify this to national decision-makers to help make a difference.
Our most recent Annual Review evidenced how we brought over £1 billion of additional investment into the area as a result of investment to date, including over £335m of government investment. And helping to equip local people with the skills they need to prosper, from this investment, 15,000 jobs and apprenticeships are set to be created. Also helping businesses to secure the support they need, in this past year alone, we have signposted over 10,000 SMEs via the LEP-funded Growth Hub.
As we continue to navigate our way through the current economic, social and environmental challenges, we know that we are the right vehicle to vocalise local issues on a national level, and continue driving Stoke-on-Trent & Staffordshire’s prosperity, equipped with the backing of Government and in alignment with national strategy. On behalf of the LEP and region, I am already engaging with national and local leaders to influence our collective response to business challenges and ensure the right support is in place at a local level. I’m looking forward to reflecting on this work at our 2021 AGM coming up on Thursday 18 November.
Empowerment at a local level will be key to driving recovery and defining our post-pandemic economy, and, as the Chancellor Rt Hon Rishi Sunak alluded in his recent Budget, we also need the private sector to lead this renaissance. Supporting businesses to achieve this success, the LEP is the ideal vehicle to help drive this growth and opportunity at a local level for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire going forward.
Alun Rogers – chairman