In this series we ask key spokespeople from across the region and from our core sectors to share their insights.
Here, we speak to Mark Goldstone, Head of Business, Representation and Policy at the West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce about business confidence in the region and the opportunities around devolution.
What is the current outlook for business in our region?
We’ve recently published our quarterly economic report, which saw a big improvement in business confidence, with firms expecting increases in turnover and profits over the next 12 months at levels last reported in 2017 for the service sector and 2015 for manufacturers.
That’s great news, but of course there are imbalances. Technology-driven businesses and professional services have seen substantial growth, whilst leisure, hospitality and non-essential retail businesses have felt the most impact of lockdown.
As these sectors start to open up again, we’ve seen some early confirmation of the Bank of England’s prediction that pent-up demand will bring about a surge in sales and there is clear evidence that business owners can at last see a route out and plan from a more secure base.
Our region was actually bucking the trend before the pandemic, particularly in our cities, which although starting from a lower base we’re seeing very strong growth, which is now returning. I’ve yet to speak to a company in our region who is not currently recruiting or planning to recruit in the near future.
Some of that of course is about last year’s shelved plans now being actioned, as well as recruiting to fill posts which were made redundant during the pandemic and where people have retired. However, the overall outlook is one of gradual growth and increased positivity across the region.
What are the key challenges to that resurgence and continued growth?
Ensuring that we have the right skills for the future economy is our biggest challenge. Leeds and its access to key talent through our strong universities and working through innovation hubs such as Nexus, is particularly well placed to meet that challenge and our region is a UK – and in many cases global – leader in Fintech and Medtech.
The skills we need are not confined to the software, coding and “tech” world however – we have seen the rapid acceleration of digitisation of traditional jobs: management, sales and customer relations, with businesses adapting to the convenience and efficiencies of remote working.
Start-ups and SMEs need a skills plan to run alongside their business plan, which recognises that training is an investment not a cost and that people are their greatest asset. I would strongly advocate the Government’s Kickstart scheme, which the Chamber of Commerce helped to shape, as well as West Yorkshires’ first University Technical College. Developed in partnership with the University of Leeds, the school is so much more than education and technology skills. The school curriculum contextualises learning and develops attributes such as teamwork, resilience and problem-solving which are vital for employers.
How will the West Yorkshire Devolution Deal support our region’s growth prospects?
The deal has been long-awaited and will have substantial benefits for business, I believe. It makes sense that regions are given greater freedom to make their own decisions on infrastructure spending – previously we would have to wait for Whitehall approval for even the smallest construction projects.
Informed regional decision-making will ensure that we are on the A-list for funding, which was previously unavailable or we had to join a very long queue. The Chamber of Commerce wants to see much greater support for start-ups and small businesses across our region – many of whom, during the pandemic, proved how resilient and adaptable they can be.
It has been an incredibly challenging year, but good things have come out of it which we must not lose sight of: not least a sense of community and spirit of true collaboration across our region.
You are also a Member of the Steering Committee for the Leeds Climate Commission – what part can our region play in addressing the climate change emergency?
The Commission works collaboratively with Leeds City Council and other regional stakeholders and businesses; and has developed a science-based roadmap for Leeds, which aims to help the Council meet their net-zero emission targets by 2030.
Every one of us has a part to play in achieving that ambition and for our region’s businesses it will demand a continued focus on sustainability and adapting their technology, systems and processes to reduce carbon emissions.
Our innovative manufacturers demonstrated how rapidly they could adapt during the pandemic – providing vital PPE for the health sector for example – and many businesses in our region have developed products and services in response to global opportunities and to serve an international customer base.
That same ingenuity and resourcefulness will serve us well as we work together to meet the climate emergency challenge.
Explore more insights from our ‘the view from here’ series: