As I write this, there are just 40 days and 40 nights left until the UK must leave the European Union on 29 March. Now as anyone familiar with this biblical expression knows, that is not necessarily the case. For, just as in Hebrew times, the phrase can simply mean a ‘very long time’ indeed.
As you read this, we may well have passed this particular milestone no nearer to exiting the EU than we were when Article 50 was triggered on 29 March 2017. True, the battle lines have been drawn and re-drawn, exit strategies have been torn to shreds then pieced back together and backstops, binary decisions and hard borders have become part of everyday political life. But in the hinterland beyond party politics, strong cross-party alliances and bridges are being built to last to create cohesive, sustainable local growth in the communities they serve.
At the first Prime Minister’s Council of LEP Chairs in June 2018, the Rt. Hon Theresa May said Local Enterprise Partnerships had a ‘crucial role in delivering further growth in local communities’. The mechanism for this was to create Local Industrial Strategies that are distinctive to each area, that map out specific challenges and opportunities, build on local strengths and address weaknesses.
Over the past few months we have done just that. Using our Strategic Economic Plan as a starting point, we have built a robust economic evidence base on which to develop our strategy. The conclusions we have drawn are not startling, but collectively they begin to paint a picture of Hertfordshire that is far more complex and colourful than one might at first assume.
On the face of it, Hertfordshire, as one would expect from its proximity to a global city, is performing well. Economic participation rates are high, unemployment is low, the workforce is comparatively well skilled, economic growth is well established, the enterprise base is growing strongly and employers are creating jobs.
But scratch the surface and things are not quite so comforting. There are significant variations in performance and productivity across the county and the pressure cooker effect of London’s iterative growth, coupled with the mega development of the Oxford-Cambridge arc, could place a huge economic squeeze on Hertfordshire. Added to this is the huge loss of employment land in Hertfordshire over the past decade, equivalent to the entire office stock of St Albans, Watford and Stevenage combined. Clearly there is no room for complacency.
So what is our response? The evidence is telling us that the solutions must be bespoke to place; that what is the right ‘economic fit’ for Watford will not necessarily hold true for Hatfield, Stevenage or Bishop’s Stortford. Our upcoming roundtable will focus on the economic future of the UK’s first Garden City, Letchworth. And who best to tell us what it is like to do business there than local business owners and decision makers themselves.
The University of Hertfordshire too, as a major employer, thought leader and contributor to local economic growth, must play an important part in helping to shape this countywide debate. The role of enterprise is also vital, be it in helping us understand the barriers to scaling up our SMEs or the contribution social enterprises make to our local economy.
Above all, we want to hear your views. We urge you to take part in the Hertfordshire Business Productivity Survey so that we can continue to target support where it is needed most.
Hertfordshire has everything to play for and collectively we can make a difference over the next 40 days, weeks and years.
Keep up to date with our progress: @HertsLEP #HertsForGrowth
Head of Communications, Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership