In response our Chair Tim Wates wrote to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Communities, setting out the significant impact of lockdown on our regional economy and our proposals for an immediate £40 million investment programme to lead response to that.
The impact of COVID-19
The impact of COVID-19 has proven to be particularly targeted on our areas of economic strength, meaning that our economy appears to be among the worst affected in the country:
- Restrictions on air travel and the long-term restructuring of the aviation sector will profoundly impact our area as Gatwick airport is our largest economic site. As traffic at Gatwick has declined by more than 99% since the beginning of lockdown, the economic impact is likely to be acute. Crawley is predicted to be the place most exposed to the crisis in the country with as many as 53,000 jobs there classified as vulnerable. 100,000 people have already been furloughed in the districts and boroughs around the airport - reflecting dependency there on jobs in airlines, aviation supply and maintenance, transport, retail, hotels and other sectors related to Gatwick. The principal airlines serving Gatwick are already threatening large scale redundancies.
- Restrictions on movement, social distancing and enforced closures are also dramatically affecting the leisure, retail, hospitality and tourism sectors which drive the economy across the region - particularly in Brighton, and in towns across Surrey and Sussex. In all of these sectors, businesses are looking for support so that they can adapt to the new operating environment. The specialisation of our region in arts, culture and events means that we are likely to bear a large part of the forecast £4.7 billion national economic hit on that sector and the 400,000 jobs which are expected to be lost across the country.
- More broadly, we are still waiting to understand wider impacts that the crisis may have on the business environment in our region. One issue is the preponderance of small businesses, particularly those run on a sole-Director basis in the region. Our concern - shared by the business representative organisations - is that many of these will not prove resilient enough to survive the lockdown. Another issue is whether commuting to London will return to previous levels and the impact that this will have on incomes and employment levels in towns such as Horsham, Haywards Heath, Reigate and Dorking where equivalent local employment opportunities can be very limited.
Driving growth in our region
Our goal is to drive up economic growth and jobs by maximising the potential of all sectors in our economy including hi-tech, horticulture, viticulture, tourism and creative & digital industries. The projects submitted to Government will allow us to increase the low levels of spend on R&D in our area and boost innovation activity.
We are proud that our bid contains a series of ambitious and deliverable bids relating to digital infrastructure, skills and innovation. There is also a strong green growth component, reflecting the region's expertise in natural capital, energy and transport projects.
Our key proposal is for an Innovation Centre in Crawley, led by Thales, a global specialist in advanced technology systems, in partnership with us, local partners and other businesses. This aspirational project would attract investment and innovators into the region, enabling new ideas to be brought to market. The centre would create a unique environment within which SMEs can innovate and scale. The Innovation Centre would leverage value from the diversity of the local economy and stimulate new growth and innovation in new high-value technologies, in particular advanced engineering and digital. It would stimulate pre-competitive R&D co-operation with university teams, attracting academic, post-graduate and post-doctoral research expertise into the Crawley area to boost innovation output.
Our submission also advocates accelerating delivery of the proposed Network Rail investment in the Brighton Mainline at Croydon, creating a development vehicle focused on the area around Gatwick and supporting the recovery of the aviation sector.
This all comes together as an ambitious package for the region and if all were to go to plan it would be very substantial. We hope to receive a response from Government in the next few weeks. But we are also working on what we can deliver ourselves with partners who have been hugely supportive of our submission.