06:00 December 5, 2021
Norfolk’s food, agriculture, logistics and health sectors are all suffering from staff shortages made worse by Brexit and Covid, the region’s business leader has warned.
Chris Starkie, chief executive of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) said Brexit was just one part of several deep-rooted issues threatening economic growth in Norfolk.
“Fundamentally, our working-age population is not enough to support the growth of our economy,” Mr. Starkie said.
“The demographic reality is that our population is aging – and incomers to our county, welcome as they are, tend to be older. »
New Anglia LEP, working in Norfolk and Suffolk, is seeking private and public funding to support local businesses and infrastructure.
Its leader added that the impact of Brexit had “been softened a bit by some of the government fixes, but we are looking forward to them acknowledging that in reality there is a longer term problem”.
Asked whether Brexit has so far been better or worse than expected for the region’s economy, Mr Starkie said: ‘I would say it hasn’t been ideal, shall we say, for our food and agriculture sectors, for our logistics sectors, for our healthcare sector, all of which are facing staff shortages.”
It is difficult to separate the impact of Covid from that of Brexit, he said.
“In general, we [the LEP] say it [Brexit] would have a negative effect on the economy, and it has.
“And of course it was exacerbated by Covid and it’s pretty much impossible to clear both, because the number of European workers who went to Europe again – there hadn’t been Covid, maybe more would have remained.
“But certainly we have seen a significant reduction in the available workforce. »
Mr Starkie said it was ‘absolutely true’ that migrant labor had supported the growth of Norfolk’s economy in the years before Brexit.
“Now you could say that’s a bad thing, because you’re too dependent on it, but it’s an indisputable statement of fact that that was the case,” he said.
“If you want to end this dependency, you have to do it over a period of time and also with incentives rather than punishing companies, would be our suggestion – if investment in skills, investment in retraining, investing to bring those outside of the labor market into the labor market, all of those things.”
Almost a year after the UK exited its transition period with the European Union, Mr Starkie said traders in the region continue to be impacted by the extra paperwork caused by Brexit.
He stressed however that Brexit should not be blamed for a wider problem with global shipping, and that there had indeed been some benefits from the UK’s exit from the trading bloc.
“There have been some benefits in that UK companies, struggling to get components and products from overseas, have tried to source more locally, which is a good thing, so as a result the UK market has limited Covid return and there are good UK sales opportunities,” he said.
“In terms of overseas investment, our inward investment team is very busy at the moment and one of the things being driven by it is European companies looking to set up a base in the UK, so that they can serve the UK market.
“Now is that to make up the loss the other way? I do not know, [with the] the loss of exports to Europe, but certainly, it’s a very interesting trend, and certainly a positive side.
LEP, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in September, has been kept busy during Covid.
“Before the pandemic, it was pretty much an outward-facing service bound so we would go out and meet businesses,” Mr. Starkie said.
“With the pandemic coming, it moves to an interior [service]Obviously because businesses suddenly realized they needed help and came in, and we had about 16,000 calls in the first six months of the pandemic.”
Mr Starkie warned that while business confidence in the region has been relatively high following the lockdowns of the past two years, the new Omicron variant will “certainly” have an impact on that confidence.
Asked what the further lockdown would mean for businesses in Norfolk, Mr Starkie said: “It would be incredibly difficult.
“I think the last lockdown was helped very significantly by government support, which was unprecedented.
“So a lockdown would be damaging to the economy, that’s obvious and could only be mitigated if the government was ready to support businesses, as has been done before.”