Essex Chambers of Commerce are the leading business membership organisation in Essex with around a thousand members ranging from sole traders and sme’s through to national and international companies.
We are the only Chamber of Commerce accredited by the British Chambers of Commerce with five offices across the county enabling us to support and stay in touch with the needs of our membership.
Many of our members are key components of their local economies providing employment and contributing in a positive manner to the 870,000 jobs within Essex. For many their area of economic activity is relatively local but others trade across not just Essex but further afield in other parts of the UK and internationally.
Within our membership we have a number of “Patrons” who are generally larger businesses that play a key role in developing and growing the economy of the county and especially the recognised growth corridors of the Thames Gateway and London Stansted Cambridge. These patrons include DP World London Gateway, c2c Rail, South Essex College, London Stansted Airport, and Greater Anglia Railway.
We work closely with the University of Essex and Anglia Ruskin University as well as Colchester Institute, Harlow College and South Essex College. We are also members of the Essex Skills Board.
We work closely with Essex County Council and support their view that Essex is a place of opportunity. Essex Chambers strongly believe in collaborative working to help Essex become one of the strongest and fastest growing economies in the UK.
We are active members of a number of local economic partnerships including the Greater Essex Business Board and Haven Gateway Partnership as well as being one of five business representatives from the county on the South East Local Enterprise Partnership.
We do believe that Essex has the capacity to contribute still more to the UK economy but it needs to have support from central government. Although Essex and the wider south east are net contributors to the economy, like other regions we are not without our problems and if we are to remain strong contributors to the future growth desired by the Government we need recognition of our county’s needs.
In responding to the Green Paper “Building our Industrial Strategy” we have chosen to focus on what we consider to be the key pillars relevant to the needs of our members and their future.
Pillar: Upgrading infrastructure
The Green Paper infers that the infrastructure of Essex and the wider south east is satisfactory to meet both the current and future needs of the area. This is not a view that we as an organisation share nor do many of our members.
Despite the investment in roads made through the Local Growth Fund there are still major deficits in the county’s road network and without these being addressed they will continue to slow economic growth and productivity.
Essex is home to three major ports – DP World London Gateway, Port of Tilbury and Harwich – and two airports – London Stansted and London Southend. All of these have the capacity to contribute to economic growth in not just Essex but in the rest of the UK as well but all have connectivity constraints due to inadequate road and rail networks which need addressing through investment by Highways England and Network Rail.
Essex Chambers of Commerce were members of the Great Eastern Rail Taskforce set up by the previous Chancellor to examine the case for investment in this route
from London through Essex and into Suffolk and Norfolk. As part of that process Abellio Greater Anglia successfully secured a longer rail franchise with a £1.4billion investment in 169 new trains. The benefits to rail users and spin offs in encouraging economic growth in Essex and East Anglia could be lost though if Network Rail due not invest in upgrading the rail infrastructure to serve these new trains.
The West Anglia Main Line will also see new rolling stock but again requires investment in infrastructure to enable four tracking from Coppermill junction to Broxbourne. A benefit of this will be to enable greater rail access to London Stansted Airport and help drive investment and growth along the M11 corridor and around the Harlow Enterprise Zone.
The county’s railways are also important to rail freight and the growth of trade at the county’s ports. Investment is needed to improve the rail network around north London to enable freight trains from London Gateway to access the east and west coast main lines with incurring delays. We would prefer to see investment in these more local projects than in HS2 which will be of limited benefit to our businesses.
The recent Lower Thames Crossing announcement is welcome, but this cannot be seen in isolation without looking at improvements to the road network in Essex and the South East as a whole if the benefits of this crossing are to be fully realised. A good example of this is the proposal for an all-moves junction east of Tilbury into the rapidly expanding Port of Tilbury area. We particularly want to see the A12 and A120, which ultimately serve London Stansted Airport and the port of Harwich, receive the investment that has been talked about, thereby sustaining and creating jobs and housing.
There is a reference in the Green Paper to digital connectivity. This is equally important to investment in other areas of infrastructure and many businesses in Essex still complain of not spots for broadband and mobile phone services. Both are vital for modern businesses and much needs to be done to improve them and make the UK competitive in these fields which we ought to lead in.
Pillar: Developing skills
Essex is fortunate in having an active Employment and Skills Board bringing together representatives from key sectors in the county’s economy to engage and work with the further and higher education institutions.
For those businesses who have the fortune to engage with the Skills Board or the better educational institutions in the county then understanding the skills system is probably relatively easy but for many it still seems complicated in understanding what support is available to upskill their workforce.
The focus by Government on encouraging apprenticeships is welcome and we believe will bring positive benefits to businesses and young people alike. However we know from our experience that it is still difficult at times to access the right support and fully understand what is required from businesses, colleges and students alike.
Having the Apprenticeship Levy will not in itself necessarily achieve the step changes that the Government is seeking and more needs to be done to embed and explain such schemes to businesses before introducing them. The blame for this should not be levied at colleges and universities but at times there does not seem to be a real understanding from Government of what is actually needed as compared with a perceived need by civil servants and policy makers.
Having said that we have some excellent work being undertaken by colleges in Essex including Colchester Institute, Harlow College and South Essex College who are working with business to understand and address local needs and provide support using resources delivered through the work of the Employment and Skills Board and capital investment though the South East LEP. We would concur with the views of SELEP that there is much that the Government could learn by engaging Skills Board or some of the above colleges to learn more about how they are working in their localities to address the skills deficit.
However it seems to us that too often schools are not involved in such projects often enough or early enough. There is rightly an emphasis on academic success but often in isolation to the world of work and sometimes to the exclusion of industry and business.
An example of positive collaborative working between the private and public sectors is the Technical and Skills Centre that is being developed at London Stansted Airport in conjunction with Harlow College and support from Essex County Council and the South East LEP. This is designed deliver a skills centre that will meet the skills gap in aircraft engineering, bridging the gap in technical skills between level 3 and 5 and match the growing skills need of the airport and wider area. This project clearly fits in with the aspirations of the Green Paper.
Young people should learn about the workplace at the earliest opportunity, preferably from primary age, and what “soft skills” are needed to succeed. All too often we hear businesses complaining that they have employees coming from school, college or university with excellent academic qualifications but who do not understand the concept of arriving on time, not leaving late and being able to communicate effectively with colleagues or customers. These skills are just as important as qualifications and certainly need to be taught in schools if not in colleges or universities.
Pillar: Encouraging trade and inward investment
With the UK having voted to leave the European Union having the right infrastructure in its broadest sense to trade globally is essential. Essex is well placed to benefit from the growth in such trade and the Chambers of Commerce are well placed to support the Government’s ambitions to grow our exports.
The Chamber network across the UK has access to businesses of all types and sizes and being run by Boards made up of business people will have a genuine and in depth understanding of local needs whether it is in relation to exporting or inward investment.
Chambers not only process export documentation but also help facilitate access to overseas markets through the Overseas British Network linked to the British Chambers of Commerce and other bodies such as the International Chamber of Commerce and Council of British Chambers of Commerce of Europe.
We believe that much of the work undertaken by the Department for International Trade at local level could be devolved to Chambers of Commerce to create genuine one stop shops for existing and potential exporters.
Pillar: Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places
Just as businesses can be confused about the plethora of training schemes and apprenticeships so they are over the number of central and local government agencies that wish to engage with them.
Although we would not have chosen to include Essex in a LEP the size of SELEP we believe that, if genuinely business led, LEPs have an important role to play in shaping and developing local economies as well as contributing to the growth of the overall UK economy.
We also believe that local authorities have an important role in supporting and encouraging economic growth working together with other bodies such as Chambers of Commerce and we are pleased to work with Essex County Council and others to help achieve this.
It is important though that there is stability in such partnerships and that collaboration is genuine. We are not sure what the “business Aldermen” suggested in the Green Paper would add to existing structures provided that local authorities do genuinely listen to the views of businesses in their area and not just pay lip service to them.
We would like therefore to see fewer organisations for businesses to engage with but those that remain properly devolved powers and funding so that they can be properly independent of central government and thereby able to quickly respond to the needs of their localities and the businesses and communities within them.
One area that is missing in our opinion is the former Government Offices for the Regions which saw staff from different Government Departments based in the former English Regions. This enabled them to have much more direct contact with not just local government but also organisations like the Chambers of Commerce and individual businesses and get a real understanding of what was happening in those regions. We don’t believe that this can be done from Whitehall and whilst some Departments, such as DIT, do have staff based outside London there are not enough to be able help deliver the objectives of the Government’s Industrial Strategy. To be successful the Government needs to be pragmatic rather than ideological.