Adapt and Survive

Back in 2019 the ‘Eastern powerhouse’ of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough was the best performing economy in the country outside London, contributing over £5bn a year to UK PLC, and with two of the top five fastest growing cities in the UK. Then along came COVID-19... With a second lockdown taking effect, Moment editor Toby Venables talked to James Palmer – Mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, responsible for promoting and facilitating economic growth in the region – about where we go from here, and why Peterborough may have an ace up its sleeve…

We’re into the second period of lockdown now. How is that impacting businesses, and what can the Combined Authority do to help?
Now clearly, the concern we have is that a lockdown of the economy has a negative impact on a significant amount of people, especially the youngest and the lowest paid. So, our job – and my job as Mayor – is to try and mitigate that impact and try and make sure that we put in measures that help people as we move through this pandemic and come out the other side of it. It’s very important to me that we invest in business – and we have done, during the first lockdown. We invested 5.9 million pounds locally into business which created 140 jobs, and then saved around 550 on top of that, so that money was important money. The new government restrictions are not as wide-reaching as Lockdown 1, and there are businesses that can carry on and are doing so – but we’ve got to look at what money we have available and invest in a way that can help those people and businesses who’ve been displaced. And that’s what we intend to do. We know that there will be a significant number of people who lose their jobs because of this pandemic. And it’s a very, very difficult situation. Our creative industries, our manufacturing businesses and our construction industries are still creating jobs. So, there is still job creation going on. We know it’s going to be tough, but we’ve got to make sure that we put in place measures to help those that are affected, and we’ve also got to make sure that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough are in a strong position when we come out of this second lockdown. We are working hard to ensure we are in a Tier 1 or better position, so that our businesses can open and can thrive.

Are there lessons that we’ve learned from the previous lockdown that helped businesses prepare for this?
I think the first lesson we learned is that shutting business completely down, is not necessary. There are businesses that can operate through this second phase of national restrictions. The industry that’s been hit the hardest is the service industry, and, of course, we know it’s an industry that employs a significant amount of people on low wages and a significant amount of young people. That’s a problem. Government has been helpful, and I think their packages take these factors into account, but it doesn’t just end on 2nd December. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was highly positive in the summer, businesses did very well from it, and I hope that government will bring out something similar in January and February to help pubs, restaurants and others. Investment into training and re-skilling is more important now. Our focus must be on those who will lose their jobs or have lost their jobs, and we need to have measures in place to allow us to help them.

There’s a limit to the powers that the Combined Authority has and that’s why I negotiate with government about what we can do.

We’d love to have the same influence and responsibility for budget on post 16 education that we have on adult education. We have been able to move this forward over the last three years with local knowledge on investment into individuals and retraining and I want investment into individuals to be the legacy of this pandemic. We must make sure that our young people have sufficient skills to feed the economy, rather than skills to feed the education curriculum. We all know that education in this country is geared to education. So, you are educated at school to go on to sixth form, you’re educated at sixth form to go on to university, and you’re educated at university to get a degree, you’re not educated to get a career. I think that’s where intervention must happen. I think that there has to be a real focus on education – and that education must be geared towards young people being able to get a career rather than just being in debt to the tune of £50,000 before they get a job.

That approach ties in well with the city’s new university and its ethos…
Very much so, and with the new university we did our research in Peterborough. We looked at what Peterborough needed. We spoke to Peterborough businesses, we got engaged with the local economy, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review got to the heart of what we needed to make a change. Now clearly, that change isn’t going to happen overnight, but we dig the first soil for the university later this month and that’s really exciting. And the ambition for the university is a job creating, technical university; you get a place there in order to get a career. I genuinely believe it has the potential to be the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for the UK. Down the road in Cambridge we’ve got a version of Harvard–a top level, world-class university. MIT was formed to do something slightly different and is now one of the top universities in the world. That’s the ambition we must have with ARU Peterborough. It should never be classed as a poor cousin to Cambridge, it should be classed as doing something that Cambridge can’t do. And that ambition, and the link with local businesses puts it in a strong position to show a new way forward for education in the UK. My ambition is to make sure that the schools and colleges in Peterborough feed into the exceptional opportunity that’s opening up for the people of North Cambridgeshire. It’s a different way of thinking, but it’s not before time. We’ve ignored massive swathes of the population in our drive to send every child to university, which in my view has not been a success at all.

Though it can’t quite have been planned this way, the university seems like exactly the right thing at the right time…
Exactly – while the university was certainly planned, and we had the evidence base for what was needed for the economy in the area and the people in Peterborough, I do believe Peterborough is in a prime position to take advantage of the change. This is the most exciting time for the city since it became a new town; we’re seeing ambition for Peterborough now that I don’t think we’ve seen for the last 20-25 years. I’m not a Peterborian, I don’t profess to be one. But I’ve lived near Peterborough all my life and I know the city well, and I get a real sense of ambition and excitement around Peterborough. I think the investment into the university has been a catalyst – investment coming to the football ground, the regeneration of the station quarter, Westgate… these are all projects that have long been spoken about but have never come to fruition. What you need in all these situations is a catalyst, and ARU Peterborough has been that. Short term, we’ve got issues to deal with post-COVID; there are problems that need to be dealt with, people who will need to be retrained and more opportunities that need to be put forward. But the medium- to long-term for Peterborough is just so exciting, and I very much hope that I’ll be part of that.

Peterborough has often been rather down on itself in the past, but it seems especially important that we have these positives just now.
There are some people in Peterborough who like to put the city down, and I don’t understand that. It’s a fantastic city. It’s got everything: a beautiful centre, incredible open space, it’s easy to get around – it’s got everything that a modern city would want. Ambition for the city through local representatives – the MP, the Council, myself – is tangible.

I think it’s a great time to live in a great city and I think Peterborough should shout its qualities from the rooftops because it’s a fantastic place to be.

When it comes to local businesses, what practical help has the Combined Authority been able to offer?
There is a limit to what we can do because of the amount of money we have. But the grants that we put through earlier this year were capital grants, allowing companies to enhance their business offer during the lockdown period, and therefore employ people, or transform their office to make it completely COVID- safe. 23.18% of that funding went into Peterborough; in Fenland it was 9.27%. Overall, 65% of the money was spent in the northern half of Cambridgeshire. Peterborough does well out of the Combined Authority on the things in our control. We weren’t involved in government initiatives, for business rate holidays, furlough and so on, but our capital grants were highly successful. It’s now a case of negotiating with the Government. That three- to four- week period in the spring where all industry, construction included, was shut hasn’t occurred this time around. We’re working towards training and retraining individuals to try and help them into new jobs, and we’re lobbying government where we think appropriate and where we’re lobbied by individuals locally. One of the areas I’ve been lobbied heavily on is gyms. The people who run the gyms are very, very worried. They felt they were locked down too long before and now they’re straight back in it again, and they don’t see the fairness in that. We’ve got to try and make sure that gyms are able to open as soon as possible post-lockdown – but there’ll be other businesses who have the same point.

You’re in touch with businesses large and small all the time. Is   it just money or are there other things that people are really needing?
There isa lot of positivity out there – but the one thing I have heard from business is that they want to be able to trade. They don’t want to live on handouts from the Government or to be on furlough; they want to trade, and they want to create jobs and create opportunities through trade. It’s been difficult, because Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have been locked down like the rest of the country but have not had the same COVID numbers as in other parts of the country. I understand entirely that the Government have an entire nation to look after and I only have a relatively small county, but I’m still frustrated that companies in the area that I represent – who have behaved extraordinarily well and not been hit as hard by  COVID-19  at  this  point – are still having to abide by the new national restrictions. So, there is a frustration, businesses want to be able to trade and we’ve got to be able to get them back trading.

Are you finding that as the pandemic has gone on businesses have adapted to conditions and found ways to function?
The most extraordinary thing is how adaptable businesses are: they find ways to trade. I visited a company that had been running for many, many years selling classic car parts. Their business had been almost entirely telephone-based, but they set up to work online and their trade has been open all the way through the pandemic. Another company had been delivering vegetables to the catering industry, and through help from us was able to buy some vans and set up a vegetable delivery round to doorsteps. He did that within a 10-day period, adapting his business. So, you know, businesses are run by people who think on their feet, and those businesses can adapt and survive. That’s fine if you’ve got an adaptable business. If you’re shut down by the Government – if you run a nightclub, for example – there’s not a lot you can do about that. But beyond that there is some extraordinary positivity within the business community, which is proving you can adapt, and you can survive, and you can thrive.

Looking beyond COVID, what are the challenges going to be when we emerge from it?
Trying to create jobs and retrain people back into work. We have not had a jobs crisis in this country for a long, long while. Up until the pandemic struck there were more people in work in this country than ever before. That’s going to be the great challenge – getting people back into work. There will be jobs that are created, we know that – the Cambridgeshire economy has been creating 7,000-8,000 jobs per year for the last several years – and we know there will be jobs created through this process of getting people who  were working in  one  area  and   retraining them so they can go to work in another. That’s going to be the challenge, for us as a Combined Authority, the Business Board, and for adult education, to ensure that people have the right skills. And it’s going  to be the challenge for the current education system to adapt to that need. From my perspective, I need to make sure that the Government allows us to do what is necessary to put the right processes  in  place to solve those issues.


The Combined Authority Growth Hub offers a range of ways that the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority can assist you and your business, including funding opportunities, helpful resources, webinars and essential documentation.

Combined Authority main website: cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.

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