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Levelling up: modernising Norfolk

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 16 Apr 2021

Known for its strong agriculture and renewable sectors, Norfolk’s business community is embracing its role in keeping the UK running.

Norfolk is well-known for its agricultural industry and green energy initiatives. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find a region rich in innovation, heritage and creativity. For instance, Great Yarmouth has a rich circus history. According to Chris Sargisson, chief executive of Norfolk Chambers of Commerce, it is known throughout the world for its teaching and support of circus skills. 

Norwich, meanwhile, is home to an innovative insurance sector and a fast-growing digital tech economy, and King's Lynn is known for its manufacturing and its many performing arts festivals. 

To date, the region has secured billions of pounds in funding to help support economic regeneration through region-defining projects. Norwich was awarded a £25m Towns Fund boost last October to help invest in a digital hub, along with Great Yarmouth in March, which received a £20m Town Deal.

"The funding and investments awarded to Norfolk have been very, very positive for the region," says Sargisson. He points to the developing offshore wind programmes operating out of Great Yarmouth and other regional ports, the investment in enterprise parks to encourage offshore energy like carbon capture and the 'ground-breaking' computer science innovations and life science developments at the University of East Anglia and Norwich Research Park. King's Lynn will also soon benefit from a new School of Nursing Studies. 

"While some of these programmes were in the pipeline already, many have been accelerated due to the pandemic. The passion that went into them was driven by the needs of the region to create new opportunities," says Sargisson.

Despite this, there's a real sense that Norfolk gets sidelined when significant investments are announced at government level.

"I get a general feeling by those allocating wider funds that we're OK, so there's less need to invest. But how we campaign to change that depends on how you look at 'OK'. If you're campaigning from a 'want' perspective (someone else has it, so we want it too), you're unlikely to be successful. 'Want' is never as compelling as 'need'." 

Digital connectivity like 5G is a case in point. Sargisson believes there is a clear business case for 5G in the region: it's no good having new science enterprise parks changing the world if they can't digitally communicate. 

"Every area has a wish list, but the significant thing is to properly define our region in order for the need to cut through, based upon the region's importance and therefore need," says Sargisson. "We are the UK region that puts food on the table and power in the system. There would be no Northern Powerhouse if East Anglia didn't give it power. If you want the lights on in the UK, you need to invest in us. Most of the food you eat locally is grown in the East. And if you want non-pesticides in modern farming, you need to invest in our agritech sector."

The latest regional funding injection will help drive innovation and capitalise on local strategies already in place, such as green energy, ICT and modern agritech. This will drive regeneration programmes across historically deprived areas, including wards in Great Yarmouth, King's Lynn and Norwich. These new investments, says Sargisson, are essential for the region's economic recovery. 

In many ways, the pandemic hit the county hard: the tourism, leisure and hospitality sector, the largest industry sectors in the county, experienced an estimated 1.8bn income loss in 2020, according to chartered accountants MHA Larking Gowen.

"Keeping hospitality and tourism businesses in a 'frozen state' has been a priority for us whilst income levels, and outgoings are low," says Sargisson. "It's not been a brilliant year, but it might not be catastrophic, either."

Norfolk Chambers of Commerce has worked closely with these business sectors and local authorities and government programmes to ensure they don't create zombie organisations laden with debt. "More energy is definitely needed at this stage to ensure we plan effectively for sustainable recovery, so we're not just turning off life support."

Part of this has been to build on existing free-to-use 'digital knowledge hubs', grouped by business function and sector to share best practice and problem solve. Prior to the pandemic, digital knowledge sharing was 'sporadic', with content sharing mainly on LinkedIn, but now, the approach has become aggregated, with widespread broadcasts curated by Norfolk Chambers of Commerce.

"We bring it all together at our end and broadcast it to wider audiences so they can benefit from specialist business knowledge or insight," Sargisson explains. "A local solicitor might broadcast five or six key tips they want customers or other businesses to know, or a business owner might talk about how they managed the emotional issue of redundancy. It's creating conversations and business communities which can support each other and share best practice and knowledge."

In Sargisson's view, Norfolk has shown remarkable resilience in its response to the pandemic, with many businesses embracing 'modernisation projects'. Alongside working to support the many schemes formed to deliver a sustainable response to the pandemic, the Norfolk Chambers digital modernisation strategy, which began in 2019, has rapidly increased in importance since then, with the shift to remote and in-the-field working and the rapid creation of the digital knowledge hubs. 

But Sargisson believes it's the collective community-focused mentality that has made the difference. 

"This region is synonymous with a very supportive engaged approach to business," he says. "There's been a real feeling of camaraderie which has cut through very loudly, and that's something we can all be proud of." 

Chris Sargisson is on the panel at the ICAEW East of England Economic Summit on 25 May.