South Lakeland plays a key role in the UK economy; it attracted 19 million visitors and brought in £1.4bn of tourism revenue in 2019. The appeal of the Lake District, with its designated World Heritage status, continues to inspire many to choose our District as a place to live, work and visit.
Our vibrant visitor economy supports many businesses and livelihoods, but this has also made it particularly vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19. Indeed, a third of South Lakeland’s employment is in sectors most highly impacted, in hospitality, retail and leisure. This is reflected in the latest government figures, showing a relatively high proportion of our workforce has benefitted from the national Job Retention and Self-Employed Income Support schemes.
South Lakeland District Council (SLDC) recognises the need to support its businesses and residents at this critical time. We have had a prominent role in the emergency response and in protecting the health and wellbeing of our communities.
Working closely with our partners through the local resilience forum, we have put in place the support needed to help our communities withstand the crisis. We have made the necessary changes to maintain our frontline services, protect public health and support our vulnerable residents, and the strength of this joint response will help provide the platform for economic recovery.
We have awarded business grants to the value of over £60m, setting up schemes and diverting and training staff in a matter of days to ensure prompt payment. This, in addition to the extension of business rates relief to those most directly affected, will have a significant impact in helping to safeguard jobs. Working with other local authorities, we have also been in regular dialogue with ministers about ways in which government financial support can be adapted or extended to greater benefit our communities and mitigate the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19.
Since the outbreak of the crisis we have taken a multi-agency approach through the Business Economic Response and Recovery Group (BERRG) formed for Cumbria, co-ordinated through Cumbria LEP. This has brought key public and private sector representatives together to work around the response and recovery activity, establishing key priorities, areas of focus and support.
It is clear that each sector has been affected differently, and SLDC is engaged with Cumbria LEP’s sector panels, particularly within key industries such as the visitor economy, culture and creative, and advanced manufacturing, to form action plans to aid recovery, recognising their varying needs for support and intervention.
The visitor economy is a particular area of focus and we are working closely with Cumbria Tourism, as the Destination Management Organisation, on a recovery marketing plan for the area to welcome people back in a safe and responsible way.
Business support is another important element and SLDC makes a significant financial contribution to this, partnering with the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce to offer free support to start-ups and existing businesses across South Lakeland. This provides a network of business advisers with different specialisms, offering a valuable support service at this challenging time.
As well as short-term interventions, we remain focused on the medium-to-long term measures that are needed to ensure the health and prosperity of our communities, both at a local district level and within our wider economic geography.
We have adopted a partnership approach across the Morecambe Bay region with colleagues in Lancaster City Council and Barrow BCl. This is a functional economic area, with 96% of the population living and working within the combined area, so we see great value in working strategically across this geography. Our partnership is about collaborative work, shared assets and opportunities.
Following the launch of the Bay partnership last year, a joint committee has now been formed with representation from the chief executives and leaders of all three councils, and a long-term prosperity and resilience strategy is currently being developed. We have a shared agenda to enhance digital connectivity, retain and attract talent, and establish a sustainable and inclusive economy to tackle inequality and climate change.
To help achieve this, we have also established a South Lakeland strategic renewal group which is chaired by Cllr Robin Ashcroft, our portfolio holder for economy, culture and leisure, and this has representation from MPs and employers from around our district. This acts as a strategic referral group to help guide and deliver on the council’s priorities. It will help inform our Local Plan review, identifying the development opportunities for future economic growth, through employment and housing allocations, as well as through updated planning policies.
In particular, we see our town centres as being central to economic recovery. We recently launched a town centre Strategy for Kendal, South Lakeland’s principal service centre, and we intend to apply its principles across the district. This seeks to put our town centres at the heart of our communities, encouraging social interaction, embracing heritage and cultural assets, as well as increasing the variety of uses on the high street. We continue to actively seek further investment for our town centres to support this activity, as well as for other key economic projects across the Morecambe Bay geography.
Matt Williams is senior specialist (economy and culture) at South Lakeland DC