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A tightrope walk to recovery for Britain’s regions

8 December 2020: With a high number of vulnerable people and a reliance on hospitality, North Norfolk is an example of the precarious balance between health and economics that is necessary in the short term. But there are reasons for optimism in the near future, says the region’s parliamentary representative Duncan Baker MP.

North Norfolk has one of the oldest demographics in the country, with 37% of its constituents over 65. It also has a large hospitality sector, with tourism a significant part of the local economy. As a result, it was particularly vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the pandemic. 

But the constituency’s community response has been phenomenal, says its parliamentary representative, Duncan Baker MP. With the region’s higher-than-average proportion of care homes and elderly, it is in line to benefit from the early prioritisation of vaccinations for care home staff and residents.

Optimism for domestic tourism

In the meantime, the extension of the 5% VAT rate for hospitality has been welcomed in the region. There may be reason to call for a further extension, says Baker, but time will tell. There is further optimism for another strong year for domestic tourism in 2021, as infection rates slowly return to normal; people will be looking for picturesque and safe locations to holiday, and Norfolk fits the bill. 

“I think we should see a decent domestic tourism bounce and that will help our businesses,” says Baker. “They just need enough back to get through the winter. That's the risk at the moment; they are not able to really get going. So I hope we’ll see a combination of decent, early-spring domestic tourism and possibly some further extensions of government measures, be it grants or the 5% VAT rate.”

The new tier restrictions coming straight after the November lockdown have been a bit of a blow (“I was devastated that North Norfolk was not in the tier one”), but it is a fine line to tread, says Baker. He wants to protect businesses, but equally, he wants to protect the health of his constituents. 

“You are treading the tightrope and nursing the economy through while protecting lives. The situation with a tier system is absolutely a case in point. I'm devastated that people's liberties and freedoms are not going to be flung back open again, though I don't think they probably were ever going to be. But, you have to keep the balance going and it is just so precarious. You can very, very quickly find yourself with rising rates of infections. As we saw in the north probably three or four months ago now, it takes an awful long time to get it back under control.

“You only have to look at the United States or Sweden, and to see that actually by being a bit laissez faire, how fast you can get into trouble.”

Post-pandemic, however, there will be considerable opportunities for the region. In addition to the potential for domestic tourism, the property market has held up well. Signs there point to an exodus of people from cities to picturesque rural areas as remote working becomes prevalent for the longer term. 

Agriculture and wind farms

Agriculture is a big industry for North Norfolk, and it has a higher than average proportion of the UK’s wind farms. The Agriculture Bill’s Enterprise Land Management Scheme (ELMS) offers farmers the opportunity to earn money using their land in a way that benefits the environment and local community. There are sites around the region that have strong potential as sites for future hydrogen power plants. 

SMEs in the region are also innovating, accelerating business plans and embracing digital technology to serve local consumers. It has also unlocked an entrepreneurial spirit among North Norfolk’s population. 

“I have come across constituents who have done remarkable things in lockdown, starting businesses, joined the gig economy or started their own micro businesses, which is quite exciting. I've seen mature businesses adapt what they have been doing for many, many years.”

Baker’s longer-term concern is the effect of online shopping on the high street. Over the lockdown period, he says, spending has shifted from one pound in five spent online to three in five. It could have a detrimental effect on more traditional local retailers. 

“I think the Chancellor will use this as a point in time to say: we want to wise up what we're doing online. Online traders are taking so much market share from traditional bricks and mortar stores and there's an opportunity to do something about that. Maybe reduce business rates but replace it with some sort of hybrid online sales tax, which I'm quite keen on.”

What the pandemic has done, however, is increase the sense of community spirit in the region. People are reaching out and supporting each other, and that includes businesses too. “We have seen throughout this pandemic a phenomenal response from the community in terms of helping and supporting each other in many of the towns and villages.”

Duncan Baker MP will be part of the panel at the East of England Economic Summit.