We often say here in Knowsley that we are the ‘engine room of the Liverpool city region economy’. Through our world class manufacturers and our logistics specialists we make things and we move things.
In the past few days we have seen news from commercial property specialists B8 Real Estate that take up of industrial and logistics space in the city region has hit record levels in 2021. And the biggest letting this year has been in Knowsley – a 650,000 sq ft facility for a major e-commerce firm.
That is good news. A growth in advanced manufacturing and logistics will see more high-value jobs come to Knowsley. It is a source of real strength for the borough as we strive to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, as we reach the halfway point in the year, and also almost a year and a half since the pandemic began, we also need to take a hard-headed look at where we are and acknowledge the challenges we face right now and those that will test us in the coming months.
Over the past year or so GDP, both in the UK and in many countries across the world, has fallen off a cliff. In this country we saw the biggest fall in GDP in 300 years and that is certainly not an abstract statistic. We have seen the tangible impact here on the ground across multiple sectors.
It has affected businesses large and small, it has cost jobs, impacted on both housing and commercial development. Since February 2020 the number of out-or-work claimants in Knowsley has risen from 4,370, to 7,675. And while much of that occurred in 2020, we may have to brace ourselves for another wave of job losses as the furlough scheme ends.
We offer a legal advice service for our members and our latest data on the types of enquiries we are getting reveals a sharp increase in the number of employers seeking advice on redundancies and also in bringing people back into the workplace. A new phenomenon has emerged where some staff want to continue to work from home.
While in the first few months, all sectors took a hit, as 2020, and then 2021, progressed we began to see some businesses faring better than others. We saw the leisure and hospitality sectors hit very hard despite the financial support from the Government.
However, other sectors such as manufacturing, financial services and e-commerce operators, those businesses which can operate without having to meet their customers face-to-face, have started to see a recovery.
My greatest concern is for the many small and micro-businesses in the borough, particularly those less than three years’ old, who perhaps don’t have the cash reserves to weather the storm. I am hopeful we will see more support for them in the coming months.
Some, such as tradespeople, are now doing very well as those people who saved during the pandemic look to spend on things such as home improvements. But for many small businesses, cash flow remains a major issue.
Here at the Chamber we are seeing a rise in requests for workshops on seminars from business people who are keen to go further down the digital road. This is particularly true when it comes to selling products online. Many are realising now that just having a basic web presence isn’t enough any more. And we are going to help them with that.
From the point of view of the economy, we are in a state of flux. There are challenges and concerns and many uncertainties. How many of the changes within the economy over the past year have been temporary and how many will translate into permanent structural change? That picture is not fully clear.
While there are challenges and concerns, there are reasons for optimism. Investment into Kirkby town centre is yielding a greater footfall and more spending in local shops. That demonstrates the immense value of the Combined Authority’s push to invest in the social fabric of our local towns.
In Prescot, we are seeing the tangible impact of the new Shakespeare North Playhouse. Pinion, opened by chef Gary Usher, was the first new restaurant in the town for 20 years and now there is a proposal in the pipeline for another restaurant in the town centre. Investment follows investment and the theatre is proving to be a good news magnet.
Knowsley Chamber is also seeing a rise in enquiries for office space for small businesses, which we are happily passing on. These are just small requirements, around 1,000 sq ft. But they add up and they are an indicator of confidence picking up.
People are looking around for opportunities and having an eco-system in place is critical to ensuring those opportunities are identified and acted upon. We are on the road to recovery. It will be hard at times but if we work collaboratively and support each other then we really can build back better.