What is next for the Cumbrian economy?

Published on 23 July 2020

Our special panel of experts look at whether the county’s economy will bounce back after coronavirus

John Stevenson, Conservative MP, Carlisle
John Stevenson photo
Rob Johnston, CEO, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce
Rob Johnston photo
Maria Whitehead, co-owner Hawkshead Relish and member of government advisory group on small business
Maria Whitehead photo
Richard Ellison, chief finance officer The Cumberland
Richard Ellison photo
How do you assess the impact on Cumbria so far?

Very difficult to assess. Certain sectors have done well, such as food manufacturing; 2 Sisters, McVities and Nestle have kept up production levels. Others have been battered quite badly such as tourism. It’s a case of how quickly they can recover.

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John Stevenson

Unprecedented. The crisis is not just local but national and international. 79% of businesses in our coronavirus survey describe the impact as ‘severe’. Only two of 544 said they hadn’t been affected at all. 76% reported a fall in sales and 21% have had difficulty sourcing supplies or raw materials.

Rob Johnston photo
Rob Johnston

Devastating. We are so heavily orientated to tourism, it’s a question of whether businesses can recover enough before winter. We are not getting international visitors. My fear is that there aren’t enough people for the number of places to eat, drink and shop. Without doubt we will lose some.

Maria Whitehead photo
Maria Whitehead

Cumbria has seen a big increase in unemployment, but it is worth noting that it is below the national average. I don’t think we will get a true read on the situation until the 60,000 or so people on furlough return to work and, sadly, in many cases, they will become unemployed too.

Richard Ellison photo
Richard Ellison
What single initiative would you most like to see now?

The single initiative that would transform Cumbria would be a nuclear plant at Moorside. It would fit the green agenda, offer energy security, a consistent base supply, create investment and jobs, support skills, and create apprenticeships and jobs for young people in nuclear, the supply chain and economy.

John Stevenson photo
John Stevenson

Rishi Sunak’s measures are designed to protect jobs in the short term. We also need measures to build a long-term recovery. I’d like to see grants so businesses can adapt to operate profitably with social distancing; a cut in employers’ NI contributions; and an extension of grant schemes to help with cashflow problems.

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Rob Johnston

A reduction or abolition of VAT for the hospitality sector, so I welcome Rishi Sunak’s announcement on that. I think it will immediately boost the economy and get people out and about. We need to look beyond government handouts and extensions of the furlough scheme.

Maria Whitehead photo
Maria Whitehead

The most important thing is getting things open in a way that is both safe and practical, which is so much more important than any particular injection of cash. I would be tempted, though, to argue for a more focused continuation of furlough for specific sectors such as the entertainment industry.

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Richard Ellison
Where do you see opportunities for growth?

We have to exploit our strengths: nuclear, tourism, agriculture and manufacturing. We must look for inward investment. We have skill sets, good transport links and are well placed geographically. It is relatively inexpensive to invest in land and property and we have quality of life.

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John Stevenson

Relaxing planning rules will create opportunities for developers. This could have a positive impact in Cumbria for the sustainability of our town centres. Town centres will become places where people live and spend leisure time, rather than simply shop.

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Rob Johnston

Creating fun experiences for visitors, such as unusual dining opportunities or takeaways, like creating innovative picnics. Our more experimental products have taken off, like our black garlic range. People just used to want strawberry jam. Now they want something new and different.

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Maria Whitehead

We are beginning to see in our data a real opportunity in the holiday let market. People want to be together and want to feel safe and a holiday let in Cumbria is the perfect answer to that. So we are getting enquiries indicating that people want to invest money in holiday lets.

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Richard Ellison
Do you have a tip for local SMEs?

Quite simply, work hard, invest but don’t over-extend.

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John Stevenson

Be in the networks where you can pick up advice. Talk to the Chamber and Cumbria Business Growth Hub - its advisers are all experienced business people. They can help with grants and loans, with reinventing your business model, finding new markets or routes to market and provide a fresh pair of eyes.

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Rob Johnston

Work on the things you can influence and don’t worry about the bigger picture too much. Reduce it down to what you can do this week, or day or hour. Foot and mouth was terrifying: We thought we would lose everything. But you get through it. We are stronger than we think.

Maria Whitehead photo
Maria Whitehead

My tip would be to understand your numbers and face up to any problems early. Right now lenders will be understanding and only too ready to help. We have all gone through the same crisis but if you leave it until challenges are too great that’s when conversations are trickier.

Richard Ellison photo
Richard Ellison