New Anglia LEP chair steps down following successful stint
PUBLISHED: 14:13 22 September 2020 | UPDATED: 15:46 22 September 2020
Past recessions suggest Suffolk and Norfolk could escape the worst of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a business chief says as he steps down from a critical role for the counties’ economy.
Retail boss Doug Field remains resolutely upbeat about the prospects for the region as he prepares to hand over the reins following a three-year stint as chair of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and six on the LEP board at its annual general meeting today (Wednesday, September 23).
The joint chief executive of East of England Co-op has been keen to position the counties in the world, as well as the UK, by promoting the region’s mixed economy and primary strengths.
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“One of our strengths is the diversity of our local economy,” he says. “That in itself presents a challenge.”
These include an already huge – and growing - renewable energy sector, a very robust food and drink industry and an increasingly important digital and ICT base, as well as a strong research heritage in both Norwich Research Park and Ipswich’s Adastral Park.
“Do we shout loud enough about it? Probably not,” he admits.
But it’s hoped the strength of these may help shield the counties from some of the worst effects of recession – although Mr Field admits it will be a bumpy road ahead. The past also shows that while the recessionary trough may not be as deep here, the strength of the recovery might not be either.
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During his tenure – which began on September 20, 2017 – one of the last great local symbols of the 2008 Credit Crunch was a half-built high-rise on Ipswich Waterfront nicknamed The Winerack.
For around a decade, the dead-eyed skeleton of what was meant to be a keystone of the waterfront’s revival loomed large over the town. But in 2018, boosted by a £5m loan from New Anglia LEP’s Growing Places Fund, the empty shell was transformed into a luxury apartment block – even cheekily adopting the name.
It’s one of the big physical achievements during Mr Field’s tenure, and symbolised a new economic revival which appeared to be in full flow when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Near the start of his chairmanship, the LEP published an Economic Strategy for Norfolk and Suffolk which remains its key focus. In 2019, the LEP launched Norfolk & Suffolk Unlimited, and earlier this year, local food and drink businesses travelled to Amsterdam to take part in one of the sector’s largest events, Horecava, to promote the region’s brands.
In June in the midst of the pandemic the LEP published its Economic Recovery Restart Plan to help kickstart the economy. Mr Field firmly believes that businesses working together and supporting each other lies at the heart of the region’s strength, and will be key to its future success. He worries for the hospitality and arts and culture sectors in particular, and the economic damage inflicted on them by the pandemic. But other sectors, he hopes, may lead the recovery.
With just 2% of the UK’s population, Suffolk and Norfolk manages to produce 11% of its food – although just half is processed here and he would like to see that proportion grow. Growing the region’s skills base is key, he believes.
But the region, and its links to the wider world via hubs such as the Port of Felixstowe, make it important to UK plc, he says.
“There’ll certainly be bumps in the road,” he says. “But I think also we will emerge stronger if we are prepared to adapt and change.”
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