Five years of the Business Support Service

As the LEP’s Business Support Service marks its fifth anniversary, Roger Marsh OBE DL, chair of the LEP, looks at its role in supporting and championing regions SMEs.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the LEP’s Business Support Service, and while I always like to look to the future, this provides a moment to stop and reflect on what has been achieved and how that has laid the foundations for what is to come. 

Since it was set up in 2015, the LEP’s one-stop shop for business support and advice has become an integral part of the region’s business environment, with a strong track record in championing our SMEs.  

The Business Support Service has helped over 14,800 companies and invested nearly £49 million into businesses across the region. It has had over 24,000 interactions with businesses and offered access to over 100 different products - and in doing so has helped to create over 9,000 jobs and support over 3,000 apprenticeships.  

In the same period, the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund, which was created by 10 of the 11 LEPs in the North, has invested some £34 million in SMEs in our region. Taken together with private sector leverage, the NPIF and LEP have unlocked in excess of half a billion pounds of investment.  

The service is now playing a vital role in helping firms meet the challenges presented by COVID-19. Since early March, we have seen an 80 per cent increase in the number of enquiries compared to the same time last year, with cash-flow and access to finance continuing to be the biggest concerns among business. In response, the LEP has put in place a programme to help small to medium sized enterprises navigate the crisis, including webinars, business mentoring and financial assistance. 

As we look beyond the immediate impact of COVID-19 to the recovery, the Business Support Service and LEP are working hard to help businesses adapt to the new environment. As well as funding to invest in new machinery and equipment, the LEP is helping businesses to reduce operating costs, minimise waste, adopt more sustainable models and making it easier to develop new products and services.  

One of the most marked changes since the outbreak of COVID-19 has been the significant increase in the number of people working from home during lockdown, and many businesses have been able to continue trading by enabling their employees to work remotely. There is every indication that home working is a trend that is here to stay, so we are developing a new scheme to help SMEs invest in ICT equipment to enable employees to operate remotely and allow the businesses to continue trading effectively. 

Equally, West Yorkshire employers are also being offered grants to support more staff cycling to work, which will play a vital role in meeting the transport challenge created by the pandemic. You can find out more by visiting CycleCityConnect.co.uk.  

Working with the Combined Authority and partners, we have moved swiftly to implement new programmes to support skills across the region. Our [re]boot training programme offers adults in the region the chance to develop digital skills in demand among local employers, including digital marketing, data analysis, productivity and coding.  

To help young people to develop their employability and careers awareness, we have also introduced FutureGoals Remote, a series of free, interactive activities that can be competed at home, based on digital, communication, problem solving and creative skills.  

The Business Support Service is just part of the wider work of the LEP and how it has made a significant difference to our region. In 2014, we agreed the £1 billion-plus Growth Deal agreed with government - the largest of its kind. In the years since, we have shown what we can achieve when given the power and funding to back up our plans.  

The Growth Deal has allowed us to make a vital and transformational investment in our economy, directly helping to improve the lives of everyone who lives and works in the region. It has delivered improvements to our bus, road and rail infrastructure, supported the growth of over 10,000 businesses, and built new college and educational facilities that are helping develop the talent of tomorrow. 

We cannot underestimate the scale of the challenge facing us. Between March and May the number of jobless claimants in West Yorkshire increased by almost 50,000 to a total of 106,700 - an 87% rise - while 256,000 roles were supported through furlough at the end of May, or around 28% of our workforce.  

This is why the West Yorkshire Economic Recovery Board, which is advising the LEP and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, will be integral to the region’s recovery. Bringing together civic and business leaders from across the region. 

Its recommendations are aimed at building on the strengths and opportunities of West Yorkshire’s economy to improve living standards, skills and opportunities, and support business, as well as identifying economically significant sectors such as health technology, where West Yorkshire can contribute to the national effort.  

We know that West Yorkshire will face difficult challenges emerging from COVID-19 and there is a long journey ahead but we must retain a sense of optimism about the future. The LEP’s mission is the same as it always has been – to work tirelessly to do all we can to build a region where higher skills, and innovative and entrepreneurial businesses go hand in hand to create a fairer, cleaner economy for all.  

Still time to have your say on devolution  

The West Yorkshire devolution deal gives us the chance to build on region’s successes. Devolution will initially bring £1.8 billion of spending under local control, mean more key decisions for the region are made locally, and see the creation of a directly-elected mayor for West Yorkshire from May 2021. The Combined Authority has launched a consultation to give everyone the opportunity to have their say on the devolution deal and I urge businesses to respond by the deadline of 19 July 2020. You can find more information about the deal and consultation at www.westyorks-ca.gov.uk/devolution/ 

This article originally appeared in the Yorkshire Post