Enterprise chief: Problem with Norfolk economy bigger than Brexit and Covid

Breakfast Club at the Imperial Hotel hosted by the New Anglia LEP Chris Starkie discussing the Enter

Chris Starkie, chief executive of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2011

Norfolk’s food, farming, logistics and healthcare sectors are all suffering from staff shortages worsened by Brexit and Covid, the region’s enterprise chief has warned.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) said Brexit was only one part of several deep-rooted problems threatening economic growth in Norfolk.

“Fundamentally, our working age population is not enough to sustain the growth of our economy,” said Mr Starkie.

“The demographic reality is that our population is aging - and the incomers to our county, welcome as they are, tend to be older.”

The New Anglia LEP, which works across Norfolk and Suffolk, seeks to secure private and public funds to support local businesses and infrastructure. 

Its chief added that the impact of Brexit had “been alleviated a bit by some of the government fixes, but we’re keen that they recognise that actually there is a longer term problem”.

Asked whether Brexit had so far gone better or worse than anticipated for the region’s economy, Mr Starkie said: “I would suggest that it’s not been ideal, shall we say, for our food and farming sectors, for our logistics sectors, for our healthcare sector, all of whom are facing staff shortages.”

Most Read

It is hard to separate the impact of Covid from that of Brexit, he said. 

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. 

Healthcare was one among several industries listed by Mr Starkie to have been impacted by Brexit - Credit: NNUH

“Broadly speaking, we [the LEP] said it [Brexit] would have a negative effect on the economy, and it has.

“And of course it’s been exacerbated by Covid and it is pretty much impossible to extricate the two, because the number of European workers who’ve gone back to Europe - had there not been Covid, maybe more would have stayed.

“But certainly, we’ve seen a significant reduction in the available workforce.”

Mr Starkie said it was “absolutely true” that migrant labour had supported the growth of Norfolk’s economy in the years before Brexit. 

“Now, you could argue that’s a bad thing, because you’re over-reliant on that, but it’s an undoubted statement of fact that that was the case,” he said.

“If you want to end that reliance, you need to do it over a period of time and also with incentives rather than just punishing businesses, would be our suggestion - so investment in skills, investment in retraining, investment in bringing those outside the labour market into the labour market, all of those things.”

Norfolk pig farm, LSB Pigs, East Rudham has been named the best in the country at the National Pig A

Norfolk pig farm, LSB Pigs, East Rudham has been named the best in the country at the National Pig Awards. Pictures: Brittany Woodman - Credit: Archant

Almost one year on from the UK exiting its transition period with the European Union, Mr Starkie said the region’s traders were continuing to be hit by the additional 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 insofar as UK businesses, struggling to get components and supplies from overseas, have been trying to source more locally, which is a good thing, so therefore the UK market has bounded back from Covid and there are good UK sales opportunities,” he said. 

“In terms of inward investment, our inward investment team is really busy at the moment and one of the things being driven by that is European companies looking to set up a base in the UK, so they can serve the UK market.

“Now, does that compensate for the loss in the other direction? I don’t know, [with the] loss of exports to Europe, but certainly, that’s a really interesting trend, and definitely an upside.”

The entrance to the Outer Harbour

The entrance to the Outer Harbour - Credit: James Bass

The LEP, which celebrated its tenth birthday in September, has been kept busy during Covid. 

“Prior to the pandemic, it was pretty much an outward-bound service so we would go out and meet businesses,” said Mr Starkie.

“With the pandemic coming in, it switched to an inward [service], obviously because businesses suddenly realised they needed help and came in, and we had about 16,000 calls during the first six months of the pandemic.”

Norwich city centre during Coronavirus lockdown 31st March 2020. Norwich market closed and empty. Pi

Norwich city centre. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN - Credit: Archant

Mr Starkie warned that while business confidence in the region was now relatively high following the lockdowns of the last two years, the new Omicron variant will “certainly” have an impact on that confidence. 

Asked what another lockdown would mean for Norfolk’s businesses, Mr Starkie said: “It would be incredibly difficult.

“I think the last lockdown was aided very significantly by the support from government, which was unprecedented.

"So a lockdown would be damaging for the economy, that’s obvious, and it could only be mitigated if the government was prepared to support businesses, as was done before.”