It’s safe to say that the first 12 months at the helm of the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) have been nothing Alun Rogers could ever have predicted.
But despite everything that has happened, the LEP chairman believes a lot of positive things came out of 2020 for businesses in Staffordshire and beyond – and there are plenty of things to look forward to in 2021.
After an unprecedented year, where some businesses were forced to make difficult decisions to protect their futures and others continue to feel the pinch of lockdown, it is easy to see why many people believe that the outlook for the next 12 months is a gloomy one.
But ever the optimist, Alun believes businesses are ready to face the next set of challenges Covid-19 will bring, and bounce back stronger than ever.
“None of us expected Covid-19 to happen, and it’s undoubtedly causing an impact to our economy, on employment, on young people and there are concerns for the long-term, but there are also many positives,” said Alun.
“The the reality is that 90 per cent of the economy is carrying on and is being productive; and from lockdown one to lockdown two, businesses have worked out how to modernise.
“For example, restaurants are doing takeaways – even Michelin-starred restaurants are posting meals to your house now – so the innovation we are seeing is incredible, and that, to me, is an indicator that things are alive and well.
“Once restrictions are lifted things will be different – but not necessarily for negative reasons.
“OK, Debenhams might not come back but there will be lots of other things that are getting ready to take its place.”
Alun acknowledges that there are a number of struggling sectors which, perhaps, the Government could have supported better – including entertainment, arts and culture.
But he believes that there is a ‘spark of enthusiasm’ among the majority of businesses in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire which are looking forward to a brighter future.
He continued: “If you work in hospitality, leisure or retail, for example, then you’ve not got a lot to be positive about; some sectors are really struggling and it is hard to find a way back.
“But for the majority of businesses there has been a real spark of enthusiasm. I think the pandemic has re-ignited their passion for their businesses because when you are presented with the fact that it could be taken away from you, it really makes you think about how much you want it, and that’s been the case for a lot of businesses.
“That’s the common spirit that I’ve encountered when I’ve spoken to most business leaders. Obviously they know it’s serious, but they’re working their way through it.
“And I think the innovation we are seeing across established businesses and the creation of new businesses will ultimately mean that we have a much brighter future from where we are now.”
And while he admits that the region’s struggles are well-documented, he says that 2020 has brought with it a number of opportunities for businesses across Staffordshire.
Among his highlights he includes:
- The continued investment in the Ceramic Valley Enterprise Zone, including the construction of 11 new industrial units at St Modwen Park Stoke Central;
- The launch and completion of numerous new warehouses schemes such as G-Park Stoke and Tunstall Trade Park;
- The official opening of the new Hilton Garden Inn in Hanley;
- Work starting on multi-million pound highway schemes including the Etruria Valley Link Road and the Stafford Western Access Route;
- Fashion retailer ASOS’s investment in a new £90m fulfilment centre in Lichfield;
- And the expansion of the i54 business park near Wolverhampton.
Alun said: “Most of these projects are still on track, and the economic benefits that were originally outlined are still there but now the mindsets of businesses and business leaders to take advantage of them, I think, has greatly improved.
“We are an absolute powerhouse for logistics and lots of our logistics businesses are growing and doing well.”
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Over the next 12 months, Alun says businesses need to focus on two key areas to ensure the current national lockdown will be the last – and ensure the economy can continue to bounce back.
He believes the first priorities for firms across the county needs to be the implementation of lateral flow Covid-19 testing and mental health support.
“We all want this to be the last lockdown” he said, “and we all need to do our bit now to make sure that’s the case.
“That includes an effort from employers and employees, and everyone following the ‘hands, face, space’ guidance.
“None of us want to do this again and it’s actually in our power to stop it and make sure we don’t put ourselves at risk.
“We also need to support people in terms of mental health now. We will all feel a bit better as the nights become lighter and it gets a bit warmer, but we need to make sure we are on top of those mental health issues so that, as the economy bounces back, it can keep going.
“We are going to have to live with this, it’s not going to disappear so, as businesses, we now need to be devising the approaches to make sure that we get on top of it and it doesn’t come back; and if we can get this right then it gives us lots to look forward to – such as taking advantage of the changes that Brexit will bring in terms of exporting.
Personally, my focus at the LEP will be to continue to raise the profile of the area and get to the point where we are starting to attract national attention.”
Alun concluded: “Everybody remembers the 1920s as ‘the roaring twenties’ they don’t remember it for the Spanish Flu or a global pandemic – and I hope that will be the case this time around.
“We have the ability to come away from this stronger than we went into it.”