Grounds for optimism over growth in East Anglia despite mixed picture

Mark Pendlington, chairman of the New Anglia LEP.
Photo: David Garrad

Mark Pendlington, chairman of the New Anglia LEP. Photo: David Garrad - Credit: Archant

Growth across different sectors of “East Anglia plc” has been far from uniform, with some making significant progress and others facing challenges, while Brexit and its implications has overshadowed all.

This year has seen the potential of tech-based businesses in and around Ipswich given formal recognition with the town being included in the 2016 Tech Nation report, highlighting the UK’s leading technology clusters.

And the importance of the sector to the wider region has also led to the creation of Tech East, a new umbrella group for the region’s tech firms which launched its manifesto in April and earlier this month opened a new “embassy” in London.

It has also been a significant year in terms of infrastruture projects, with indications of Government support for new river crossings in Ipswich and Lowestoft, progress on the East Anglia One offshore wind farm and clearance for the Hinkley Point C nuclear development in Somerset, with its implications for the Sizewell C project in Suffolk.

The decision in August to award Abellio the new nine-year Greater Anglia rail franchise for the region, with the promise of new rolling stock on all routes, also brings with it the prospect of improved services to the capital, long seen as vital to unlocking future growth.

Mark Pendlington, chairman of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), said: “The trends for the East are really positive and there are some parts of Norfolk and Suffolk that are outstripping the Northern Powerhouse in terms of growth,” he said. “We are not without challenges, but the Government is investing, the LEP is investing and businesses are investing.

“We have got high employment levels and where there are challenges such as areas of deprivation of long-term youth unemployment, there are plans in place to address it

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“I don’t think we have had that sort of environment before here in the East. When I first became New Anglia chairman, people were saying that it is a forgotten area, and all the money was going to Cornwall, Scotland or Wales.

“If you look at the specific sectors we have got, agri-tech, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, and even energy, there are things here that define us in the world. These are the growth areas that are driving our progress, and you could see many of the awards that went to hi-tech industries.”

James Hunter, partner in the corporate team of regional law firm Mills & Reeve, said while the UK had posted good growth in the last 12 months and the forecasts were looking good, growth had been patchy and sector specific. Within the supply chain there was also concern about ‘imported inflation’ and price rises born of sterling’s fall in the wake of the Brexit vote.

“We should be optimistic, we have got some great businesses but it’s not a uniform picture,” he said. “There are some sectors that have grown rapidly, for example technology companies, but we know in the oil and gas services and offshore some businesses are having a pretty tough time, while others such as Bernard Matthews have seen the reverse of growth.”

The potential for a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit, and with it the end of free movement of labour, has caused concern among sectors such as higher education and agriculture, and even health, where overseas skills are vital to maintaining the labour supply.

Meanwhile, however, tourism businesses are reporting a surge in bookings and are hoping that the cheaper pound both encourages people to stay at home, and also bring an influx of overseas visitors

Tim Seeley, head of business and corporate banking at Barclays, East Anglia, said: “We mustn’t allow ourselves to be put off looking to Europe – it’s still a hugely important market for us.

“Europe is still our biggest trading partner by far, so by definition it must still be our most important market – it’s still important to us and will remain so.”