Barnsley & Rotherham, Doncaster, and Sheffield Chambers plan to break new ground with an expansion of their flagship research, the Quarterly Economic Survey (QES), by running high-profile ‘business citizens assemblies’ and also publicly submitting their leaders to regular ‘Ask Your Chamber Anything’ grillings.

In this issue, we publish the very first Ask Us Anything questions from unLTD readers, and the South Yorkshire Chamber leaders’ answers, in a bid to help make our region become the UK’s model for strong private sector-civic leadership.

The Quarterly Economic Survey (QES) ties all this together because it’s the highest-profile poll of business sentiment in the city region.

The South Yorkshire Chambers want to encourage more businesses to fill out the QES and aim to double the number of responses this year. It’s open to member and non-member businesses to participate.

Louisa Harrison-Walker, co-executive director at Sheffield Chamber, said: “The QES is the highest profile temperature check of business confidence and performance in the region. The results shape the decisions made by local politicians. The survey helps make sure the SCR Mayor hears the business voice.

“The survey from local businesses also impacts on national policy-making. The data and insights we get from the QES is passed to the British Chambers of Commerce and forms part of the largest and most influential private sector survey of business conditions in the country. The results are sought after by policymakers in the heart of government and used by the Bank of England to inform decisions and changes that are made to interest rates.”

Andrew Denniff, chief executive of Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber, said: “The South Yorkshire Chambers have broken new ground with plans to enhance their regular survey of their members. The proposals will bring together experienced and committed businesspeople to look at and assess the issues of the day and submit balanced feedback.

“The view of our businesses in influencing the regional environment has never been more important. We find ourselves in a pivotal position for our region’s economy refocusing after the COVID-19 pandemic and the wide-ranging impact of EU transition.

“The future must focus on getting product to market, effective business planning and adapting to new challenges. This is reflected in our most recent QES results, which highlighted growing concerns around pricing pressures, availability in skilled labour and the impact of government intervention.”

Doncaster Chamber CEO, Dan Fell explained: “We want people to think of South Yorkshire as a place where employers are really hard-wired into decision making and civic life.

“The QES is a key channel for business leaders to reach policy and decision makers in local and national government and to play their part in shaping the region’s economic future.  All three South Yorkshire Chambers are working together to get more businesses engaged with this and, ultimately, to ensure more firms – including those that don’t always shout the loudest – get their voices heard.

“We aim to double the number of responses this year – there’s strength in numbers.  The more of the region’s business leaders we have involved, the better the evidence base. That way we can ensure that local, regional and national decision makers sit up and listen to what we have to say.”

Why now?

Increasingly, decisions that shape the destiny of local firms are taken at the South Yorkshire level, through the Mayoral Combined Authority and its supporting structures. Chambers are working together on this basis too, using joint initiatives like the QES and the forthcoming business citizens assemblies to project their collective voice.

Business engagement in civic life and the decisions that shape their environment has never been more important.  We are in a major change moment for the UK and South Yorkshire economies from both the pandemic and post-Brexit transition trade rules.

COVID-19 has the potential to alter the relationships that businesses have with places in the years ahead. From high streets to industrial parks, evolving patterns of work, education and consumer life will raise new questions about the infrastructure and skills that we need – and how we configure places like town and city centres to thrive in this new era.

The continuing input of businesses, with their frontline perspective, is essential for positioning our city region in the vanguard of successful places post-COVID.

Sheffield Chamber’s Louisa Harrison-Walker said:  “From our next survey, which goes live later this month on August 23, we invite businesses to get involved and put forward questions for future Ask Us Anything features in this magazine.

“Collectively, the South Yorkshire Chambers want to focus on the issues that are front and centre on your mind and respond to questions that are important to you.”

Alexis Krachai, co-executive director of Sheffield Chamber, added:  “Our local politicians need data and insight to help them make decisions on policies that will help local businesses to be successful and sustainable.

“Making sure politicians know what businesses are thinking about is one of the Chambers’ key priorities. That is why the three Chambers are working together to amplify the collective business voice in our region.”

Doncaster Chamber’s Dan Fell continued: “The lasting legacy of the pandemic is yet to be fully seen, never mind understood. It’s clear there’s much more that will play out before we can consider ourselves to be nearing the end.

“What we have started to, and continue to, see though is a change in how we do business and the things customers and staff value. We’re also seeing changing relationships between businesses and the communities and places they are based.

“From urban centres to industrial parks, we’re seeing an evolution in ways of working, education and training, and consumer behaviour. New questions are being raised about the infrastructure and skills we will need in the years to come, and the ways in which we’ll adapt our town and city centres to be able to thrive in this new era.

“By engaging in the conversation now, and sharing your perspective from the frontline, we can all join together to position South Yorkshire as well as we possibly can in the vanguard of successful places in the post-COVID era.

“The phrase ‘build back better’ has been used relentlessly over the last six months and sometimes rings pretty hollow with businesses.  If we’re going to ‘build back better’ in South Yorkshire then we need to double down on the relationship that exists between businesses and places, and ensure our business community is more involved than ever in decision-making and civic life.”

On the transition to Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions and the role for community initiative…

“Like other businesses, St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield is working to improve sustainability and reduce environmental impact. We face many complex issues, which include the conversion of our services for the move to electric vehicles – we have 20 nurses on the road each day – and the need to generate more of our own power in servicing our 24-hour operations.

“How is the regional economy gearing up to support us and others in making these changes, and what will the balance be between centralised programmes versus support for local collective initiatives, such as community energy projects?”

Peter Hartland, St Luke’s Hospice

Alexis Krachai, co-executive director of Sheffield Chamber: “It is inspiring that St Luke’s is taking action to reduce its environmental impact. Every individual and every organisation has a role to play in building a low carbon economy and moving to net zero.

“As we wake up to the climate emergency our regional economy is already responding. Every day customers and clients are demanding new sustainable products and solutions. Large and small businesses are innovating and thinking about new ways of combatting climate change. The marketplace is waking up to the value of going green.

“Decarbonising our economy is still going to take billions and billions of pounds to help businesses and households to make the changes they need to make. That type of financial firepower can only come from central government working alone or in partnership with private institutional investors.

“If we have any chance of success, we will need massive, centralised programmes that can be tailored to local needs. That is why the Sheffield City Region’s recently published 20-year Strategic Economic Strategy is so important. The strategy has a clear objective to move our local economy to net zero by 2041 and provides a framework for how we can decarbonise it, too.

“The government must consider regional plans like ours and then develop centralised programmes that meet the needs for local economies. They also need to devolve money and power to local areas so we can develop local programmes that respond to the precise needs of our economy.”

On trends in economic performance and closing the gap with the UK…

“How are we going to solve the ‘productivity puzzle’ on a local/regional level – without losing jobs?”

Kurt Ewald Lindley, Be More Learning & Development

Louisa Harrison-Walker, co-executive director of Sheffield Chamber: “Growth in local and regional productivity doesn’t need to lead to overall job losses. The introduction of new business models and technological innovations are driving the requirement for new skills. We are already seeing evidence of this future economy in South Yorkshire in the results from our Quarterly Economic Survey.

“The insights provided by businesses regionally are showing historically high rates of difficulty in recruiting technical staff. Despite all the challenges faced by businesses over the past 18 months the labour markets remain tight with unemployment low across the country. But it’s also a sign that, now, more than ever, businesses need to retool and upskill their workforces to address the productivity puzzle.

“The South Yorkshire Chambers, along with key strategic partners and stakeholders have recently positioned South Yorkshire as a trailblazer area for the governments new Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP) initiative. The LSIP puts businesses at the heart of the skills agenda. The focus will be on South Yorkshire as we undertake this important pilot work to develop the blueprint that will then roll out across the country.

“For this to be successful we need our businesses to get involved. Together, we can work on and address the productivity issues in our region through developing a smart local skills improvement plan that cracks the productivity puzzle.”

On supporting growth in the digital sector…

“How are the Chambers and business support organisations supporting the growth of digital businesses in the Sheffield City Region?”

Gemma Daniels, Hydra Creative

Louisa Harrison-Walker, Co-Executive Director of Sheffield Chamber: “The growth potential of our digital businesses across the region is massive. Business organisations like the Chamber are waking up to the potential that new digital businesses can offer to supercharge our economy. We need to be bold, and we need to be ambitious. Why can’t Sheffield City Region be the Silicon Valley of Europe?

“We have been active in calling for Sheffield City Council to deliver targeted support that is tailored to our digital industry. We know that our digital businesses can generate large numbers of sustainable and long-term jobs for young people who have grown up in a digital world.

“Our support goes beyond championing the digital sector. We know we need to better connect our digital businesses with existing support schemes. We know there is support out there, but the challenge is understanding what is on offer to businesses that need support to grow.  Seeing the wood for the trees is sometimes too difficult.

“That said, there is lots of support out there. The Sheffield Innovation Programme is a prime example of the support on offer which is being led and delivered by Sheffield Hallam University, The University of Sheffield, and Sheffield City Region Growth Hub. In addition, there are savings to be made for innovative companies through the R&D Tax Relief scheme.

“We have developed a strong partnership and offer to help businesses navigate this process and maximise their claims. Collaboration starts with a conversation – talk to us to find out what support is on offer. Tell us what digital businesses need to flourish. The job of the Chambers is to keep innovating and to do all that we can to support every digital business in our region.”

On businesses falling through the cracks of official support measures during the pandemic…

 “Many people in my network, including myself, feel like they have fallen through the cracks when it comes to funding and support. This may be because we are the “Forgotten Limited”, or affected by the pandemic but not closed, or non-qualifying because we are a new business trading from home – maybe all three.

“As any change in government policy seems unlikely, what support can the chamber specifically offer to these particular businesses to ensure that opportunities to access help (financial or otherwise) are not missed?”

Jo Dawson, Dawson Radford Solicitors

Andrew Denniff, chief executive of Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber, said: “Since the start of the pandemic and the introduction of government funding for business we have always been aware that, while the support for those that receive it was welcome, there were always going to be challenges for those businesses who did not meet the criteria, through no fault of their own.

“As a Chamber we have worked with local authorities to try and make sure as many as possible can benefit from the support on offer and also pushed for greater flexibility in the awarding of discretionary grants. We are, however, well aware that, among others, new start-ups and the self-employed have experienced specific issues and we will continue to do as much as we can to support them.

“Throughout, the Chambers have lobbied government to prioritise easy and quick access to support over other considerations like means-testing. We have had some success in campaigning for support, such as widening the availability of loan schemes and extending furlough last autumn.

“But we know that some continued to miss out, especially new limited companies, and will continue to call for support as needed as the economy reopens.

“Companies with short financial histories miss out on a lot, not just government schemes. There are also favourable payment terms with suppliers and access to finance more generally. For director-owned businesses, these barriers can extend into the personal financial lives of their founders.

“We help with the member services that ease the cost burden for new businesses, for instance with our affinity schemes on business insurance, legal services and HR.”

On the future of high streets and town centres…

“The last decade or so has seen a decline in the high street/town centres in favour of out-of-town shopping and online/direct shopping – a decline hastened by the lockdowns of the last 18 months.  

“There is an obvious impact on retail but also on other businesses in city and town centres.

 “Sheffield can seem quite destitute and frightening, it is expensive to park and difficult sometimes to find your way around if you are unfamiliar with the one-way systems.  

“What should city-based businesses do? Should they move out of town to premises that are often more modern, lower leases and cost less or stay and decline with the retail sector?”

Charles Neal,  Bell and Buxton Solicitors

Andrew Denniff, chief executive of Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber, said: “Town centres and high streets across the country have all seen significant declines in both footfall and retail spend. Once thriving places often seem bland and unattractive, such is the impact of alternate retail technology and changing customer habits.

“The pandemic and subsequent lockdown has simply added to the challenges and obstacles, particularly in the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors. Many towns such as Barnsley and Rotherham have implemented huge regeneration programmes, focusing on the future and what can be achieved, rather than harking back to ‘the good old days’.

“Times change and we have to be innovative and creative, with the emphasis on recognising opportunities and being in tune with the demands and expectations of the modern consumer, while recognising and reflecting traditions and heritage.

“Ultimately all businesses must do what is best for their commercial model. But we believe strongly thriving town and city centres are important, not just to our economic health, but the region’s social fabric, too.

“It’s true the pandemic accelerated the de-coupling of online from high-street retailing with click-and-collect and in-store ordering declining in importance as more people worked from home to receive deliveries. Many consumer trends now favour ‘clicks’ over ‘bricks’ for certain products.

“But places have always been adaptable, and we expect other forms of commerce to flourish instead – more hospitality, co-working and entertainment spaces, for instance. Plus, some retailers continue to do well including those selling perishables and where close interaction is important to buying decisions.”

On returning to the office…

“With the pandemic hopefully coming to a close, how is SCR going to support businesses in getting staff back to offices to promote collaboration and wellbeing in the workplace? Is this going to be part of the overall strategy for rejuvenating the SCR town centres which have been heavily hit in hospitality and retail during the pandemic?”

Matt Travis, Enzygo

Andrew Denniff, chief executive of Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber, said: “While I understand the sentiment of the question, it is important to also recognise in the medium term we are going to have to live with COVID-19.

“The SCR strategy, from my own perspective, should be to ensure we encourage business to re-open. But we must also be mindful of the need to retain correct procedures around health and risk management. Businesses in general have been very resilient but there must be continued funding to support them if restrictions remain in place and far greater flexibility in terms of loan repayments, business rate relief and enhanced discretion around continuing support packages wherever appropriate.

“However, a clear strategy and direction of travel for our town centres has to be established and adhered to, so that everyone understands the ‘end game’ and how they can contribute to its success.

“Timing is important– the pandemic still has the capacity to surprise and official guidance for business has not been as clear as it could be, and the Chambers are working with government behind the scenes to resolve this.”

Practical things we can do to support a return to work and sales spaces include:

  • Flexing public transport provision to accommodate new patterns of commuting, education, and consumer life
  • Continued flexibility in planning and development control around use of space
  • Continued forbearance, financial support and flexibilities for rate payers
  • Clear local guidance where gaps in guidelines exist.

On how businesses can work with the voluntary sector to provide opportunities for young people…

“Young people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. More than a million young people are unemployed, the highest number since records began. 

During the pandemic the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has risen to the challenge and provided value services during lockdown to communities filling gaps in statutory and commercial provision for young people. How will the business sector look to continue this valuable role, and develop its relationships with the VCSE going forward, both as a substantial employer in the region and provider of services, to ensure the sector plays a key role in the future skills agenda?”

Ruth Willis, South Yorkshire Community Foundation

Dan Fell, CEO of Doncaster Chamber, said: “Improving job prospects and opportunities for young people and having a strong and thriving voluntary sector are two subjects close to my heart and key priorities for Doncaster Chamber.

If the pandemic results in long term economic scarring for the younger generation, then – bluntly – there will have been a failure of collective leadership in our region.

“Our voluntary sector can be a big part of the solution when it comes to tackling youth unemployment.  I would also like to see other sectors like the arts community more heavily involved in providing solutions for the region’s young people.  The VCSE sector, in its many and wonderful guises, can reach communities and support people to develop skills in ways that, sometimes, cannot be matched by bigger and more formal learning establishments.  As such, the region’s policy makers must think deeply about how the talent and resource in the sector can be utilised to help deliver South Yorkshire’s Renewal Action Plan.

“My experience of doing business in South Yorkshire is that its institutions and leaders are actually pretty accessible and very open to collaboration.  As such, I would urge colleagues in the voluntary sector not to wait for permission from the region’s institutions but, instead, to come forward with ideas and solutions they can bring to the table.

“Finally, I’ve been awed by how generously our business community has continued to support charities and the VCSE sector throughout the pandemic, often despite the pressing commercial challenges that have characterised so many sectors. I know the high regard the region’s business leaders have for the VCSE sector and can only see those connections deepening and strengthening in the months and years ahead as we all collaborate to rebuild our economy.”

On the threat of future COVID-related restrictions on business…

“With the threat of increased COVID-19 restrictions over the winter being proposed by the government, how important is it that government performs proper cost/benefit analysis of these restrictions to ensure the impact on local businesses is ascertained before they are implemented?”

Scott Burkinshaw, Shorts

Dan Fell, CEO of Doncaster Chamber, said: “At various times this last 17 months, the government has been portrayed as needing to make binary choices between the health of communities and the health of the economy.

“I believe this is a false dichotomy and we will not solve the economic crisis and return to sustainable growth until the health crisis is under control. Of course, I would sincerely hope that a proper cost / benefits analysis and options appraisal is produced whenever the government makes a decision about millions of people’s lives and livelihoods.

“The pandemic has been around for a long time now and the government knows all too well how beleaguered some sectors are feeling.  Furthermore, No. 10 has had plenty of time to learn from previous mistakes and to avoid exasperating businesses again with U-turns, late decisions, gaps in support, and mixed messages.

“Therefore, if further restrictions do become necessary in the autumn and winter, it is vitally important that the government acts with clarity and pace and also responds with targeted and generous support for affected businesses.  The Chamber network will be holding them to account on that!

“However, we must – collectively – do all we can to avoid further lockdowns as they would, undoubtedly, and very sadly, result in more business failures and job losses.  Ultimately, there is no support intervention the government can offer that is as good as a fully open and competitive economy.”