Helen Simpson OBE, Chair of the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, discusses economic opportunities following two years of unprecedented challenges.
There has been a significant milestone in recent weeks – the second anniversary of the first Covid-19 lockdown.
The pandemic has undoubtedly been an extremely difficult time for many, but also provides opportunities for us to reflect and learn about how we grow the York and North Yorkshire economy.
During lockdown, we all appreciated the advantages of what we could do digitally. It has enabled new ways of working and offered greater accessibility. A more flexible workplace has emerged, with opportunities to balance work with parenting or caring responsibilities or to live further afield from an office and not have to factor in lengthy commuting times.
Last summer, The Rural Commission called on Government and regulator Ofcom to “understand digital connectivity as a human right”, advocating an approach where the most remote citizens are connected first. In recent years great strides have been made to improve digital connectivity in the region, although some communities, particularly in rural areas, still need to see further progress. As we start to understand the digital possibilities for work, as well as for communities and families we can go further and faster in growing and developing skills for our region.
The shift to home or hybrid working has brought increased demand to local high streets as people sometimes work at home and sometimes in the office. Throughout the pandemic, city centres have suffered the greatest damage across the UK, although data from the Centre for Cities shows that York has a good track record with better footfall than many other cities in the North. We hear from York & North Yorkshire LEP stakeholders across the region that many of our market towns are doing well, in particular those with strong relationships generating loyalty in their surrounding villages.
The Office of National Statistics reported a 46.1% increase in ecommerce values in 2020 when compared with 2019 – the highest annual growth reported since 2008. We have seen that rise reflected in increased online retailing for Yorkshire businesses. Many of York and North Yorkshire’s small to medium-sized businesses have grasped this opportunity and adapted to the shifting economic landscape. The acceleration of online consumption and preferences for local, independent businesses caused by the pandemic, both present big opportunities for retailers. It is great to see this growth and change in high streets, particularly as businesses rethink their purpose and meet new consumer demands. Many communities are now seeing the emergence of collaborative business spaces where businesses can support and learn from each other, utilising digital skills to thrive.
When lockdown began, in March 2020, hospitality was among the hardest hit sectors. During lockdown, many businesses had very little ability to change their services and continue to operate. Pressures continued even as the economy reopened, with increased costs around cleaning, safety materials and signage, limitations due to social distancing and issues with supply chains. Businesses had all of this to contend with, combined with historical issues such as seasonality. However, limitations to holidaying abroad did create a staycation boom, with North Yorkshire the most visited county in the UK in 2020. At the start of 2021, the Yorkshire Dales was the fifth highest location in the UK for people to book. The key for hospitality going forward will be to retain that market whilst also extending the season beyond the historic peaks during July to September. We saw some businesses radically diversify their offer during lockdowns, opening up new businesses such as online experiences. It is good to see these new initiatives grow as well as historic businesses bouncing back, providing added resilience. The lure of the area is not just among visitors – people continuing to work remotely may wish to relocate to York and North Yorkshire. That presents an opportunity to attract a new, diverse talent base to the region.
Covid, of course, remains a part of everyday life and the impact of the pandemic will be felt for many years to come. Fresh challenges to the economy have also emerged from the war in Ukraine, while rising energy costs remain headline news. York and North Yorkshire must also contend with long-standing challenges, which include rising house prices and labour shortages, plus a need for better infrastructure and digital connectivity. Greater investment can tackle these long-standing issues and help build upon the opportunities which have risen during the pandemic, helping York and North Yorkshire become a greener, fairer and stronger economy. As we move towards devolution, the tenacity, resilience and collaboration which are the trademarks of the region will stand us in good stead to make the most of these opportunities.
From an article originally published by the Yorkshire Post
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