Six of the country's Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), covering an area which produces almost 20% of the UK's GDP, organised a roundtable discussion between business and government ministers last week (Wednesday, May 27th), at which they shared some of the challenges they are facing, how they are implementing safe return to work and how they will lead the country's economic recovery.
Chair Chris Brodie, from South East LEP (SELEP), told ministers that the LEPs' combined areas - which cover Essex, Thurrock, Southend, Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Hampshire, the Solent wider region (including Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight), Sussex, Kent and Medway - would stand at the forefront of the UK's COVID-19 recovery.
He reminded them that the region not only has a significant proportion of the country's high-tech, high-growth industries needed to help drive recovery but also a disproportionate number of businesses in the aviation, hospitality, destination and cultural sectors which have been most affected by COVID-19.
The roundtable discussion, organised by the 'Greater South LEPs' including Coast to Capital, Solent, Enterprise M3, Hertfordshire, Thames Valley Berkshire and SELEP, provided an opportunity for businesses to speak directly to ministers, including Simon Clarke, the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, and Paul Scully, Minister for Small Business.
The companies highlighted a range of challenges being faced by business in the South, including concern over the increased debt burden and the urgent need for better digital connectivity, both to support knowledge-based industries and accommodate new COVID-secure ways of working.
There were specific requests around the challenges faced by the hard-hit visitor economy, hospitality and events industries as well as the UK's film and television production sector, 75% of which is based in Herts, Bucks, Surrey and London. Aviation, maritime and travel featured prominently, since the combined LEP region contains four of the UK's key airports (Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted and Southampton as well as a number of its key global gateways such as the Port of Southampton and Port of Dover. The LEPs were keen to remind Ministers that the South serves the rest of the country as a world trading hub, with a significant percentage of the UK's exports and imports passing through its airports and ports.
Chris Brodie thanked the ministers for listening and providing rapid responses to business' issues to date, saying he hoped the government would continue to invest for economic recovery and supporting levelling-up of some of the region's most deprived areas.
He said: "We see huge opportunity and potential for the south to be the key growth engine that can help our country grow our way out of the crisis.
"Our knowledge-based high tech and growth sectors make us one of the most future focussed and productive areas in the world. With the right investment we can lead the UK out of the crisis and assist the government in its vital agenda to sustain economic recovery and level up the left behind areas. We stand ready to play our part."
Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Simon Clarke MP, said:
"The coronavirus pandemic will leave a lasting impact on all our regions. We are going to overcome these challenges and it is fundamental that we understand local concerns so that we can help our regions expediate the restart of their economies. Our determination to level up the country is only reinforced by the scale of the challenge we now confront."
Chair of the LEP Network, Mark Bretton, said:
"The value that local businesses will play in the next phase of recovery and rebuilding the local economy is critical. These LEP virtual roundtables with Ministers are an invaluable barometer of how businesses are really doing away from the headlines, and help us understand how employers are implementing the return to work guidelines."
"Our national recovery is rooted in local recovery and a safe return to work - that's why these roundtables are so important, and LEPs forensic understanding of their local economies will be a key element in the vital recovery planning now underway across the country."