Keeping one eye on the future is as important as ever, current crisis mode notwithstanding. HELEN COMPSON hears what one economic development company is doing today and tomorrow to support the businesses in its care.
The announcement in May that retail distribution company AM Fresh was expanding to create another 300 to 400 jobs in Peterborough was more than just a good news story.
It also illustrated that while Covid had called for a plethora of emergency short-term planning, East Anglia still had one eye on the future – long-term strategic planning had continued to tick away quietly in the background.
For the already well-established AM Fresh, the end result in this particular instance is more people supplying more tropical fruits, superfoods and flowers to the big supermarkets.
For Opportunity Peterborough, it is an equally healthy sign – it indicates (some) business as usual.
Its chief executive, Tom Hennessy, said: “We have continued to receive enquiries from across the private sector, as well as through the Department for International Trade, with the long-term in mind, particularly from larger companies considering making a considerable investment in the city.
“Yes, people are having to deal with short and medium term impacts, but there is still a focus on delivering long term strategies.”
A private not-for-profit business owned by Peterborough City Council, it was founded in 2005 as an urban regeneration company. Within a few short years, its remit had evolved to lead the city’s economic development as a whole.
One of its core responsibilities is to hold the door open for inward investment, by making sure the world at large appreciates Peterborough’s assets.
“This city is a great location for businesses to come and set up,” said Tom, “whether they are a UK business wanting to expand or whether they are a foreign-owned business looking to establish a presence in the UK.
“Either way, it is up to us to present the city in its best light and to promote the fact it is able to meet their investment criteria.”
Opportunity Peterborough’s other key responsibility is to support the growth ambitions of those who have already demonstrated their faith in this oh-so viable alternative to London.
“Again, that can mean supporting the ambitions of overseas companies or UK companies from outside the area, but it does also include our local businesses too,” he said.
“One of the best ways of promoting your area and attracting new businesses in is by creating the right business conditions on the ground, and that is down to long-term strategic planning.
“Often that is about supporting your existing business community, because if outside investors see that existing businesses are thriving due to the support they are receiving they will want to come here.”
By far the largest proportion of the business community – no less than 98 % – are small or micro-enterprises.
To put it in context though, they provide 52% of jobs locally. The other 48% of jobs are down to the 11% that are the big-name employers. So, as Tom stresses, employers both big and small are needed for a balanced mix.
Ostensibly, there are two ‘source’ locations where companies with Peterborough in their sights are coming from.
One is London, of course. Professional services companies in particular can make huge cost savings by moving the hub of their operations out of the Big Smoke.
And the other is Europe. Many a company headquartered in the Netherlands, Poland, France, Spain, Denmark andNorway have chosen Peterborough for their UK start-up.
The sectors they work in have been equally varied, although manufacturing, logistics and distribution are the most prominent .
Tom said: “Connectivity is a key attraction, alongside the competitive cost of doing business here.
“Land and property is relatively inexpensive compared to a lot of locations in close proximity to London, and it is on more than one of the main transport routes.
“When they finish upgrading the East Coast mainline, Peterborough will be just 39 minutes from King’s Cross.”
It is also on the main A1 corridor as well as the A14, so a double draw for warehousing and distribution companies, but the demographics of the city shouldn’t be underestimated either.
It is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and the 200,000 plus population not only boasts a younger and more multi-skilled profile than most, but also an enviable level of flexibility and adaptability.
“That’s of great interest to most investors,” said Tom, “and particularly for companies looking to establish their back-office operations somewhere close to London.”
Incomers from Europe in recent times have included Dutch paint specialist Anker Stuy, and the Danish personal hygiene products company Coloplast, which has just reinvested by building a new 150,000 square foot manufacturing and distribution centre on one of Greater Peterborough’s business parks.
The conurbation, which is well endowed with business parks in general, also has six business incubators that specifically support start-ups – helping all manner of enterprises get off the blocks – and there is an ambitious strategic regeneration programme under way with a gross development value of £500m.
With the latter, Peterborough City Council is working with organisations such as Network Rail, LNER, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to redevelop areas of North Westgate, Northminster, the University of Peterborough campus, the Station Quarter around the city’s bustling train station, and the Northern Embankment.
“We are working on a masterplan for the redevelopment of Station Quarter,” said Tom. “It includes a new railway station and car park and the development of grade A office space, which would be attractive to people who want to be close to King’s Cross and central London.”
Attention during the past few weeks, though, has been primarily focused on helping existing businesses survive the impact of Covid 19. Opportunity Peterborough has worked closely with the city council on rolling out the government’s small business grants programme and the retail, hospitality & leisure grants programme.
As of the first week in May, over £27m had been shared out amongst 2,465 small, local businesses. “Over 90% of eligible businesses have now received their grant funding, which is one of the highest rates in the eastern region,” he said.
Going forward, his team are working with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority on a scheme to both help people who have lost their jobs find new ones and companies fill new vacancies – quickly!
And they are carrying out a comprehensive survey to establish to what extent businesses have been affected by the pandemic. They want to know not only what the short-term impact has been, but also what the long-term requirements will be.
Tom said: “Maybe they will want to learn how to better adopt digital practices and business models, so they can diversify, or perhaps they will want help in accessing additional grants and funding.
“We are talking to them about a whole range of topics and their answers will shape the nature of the help they can expect to receive not only from us, but from the combined authority and central government too.”