It was fantastic to see people flocking back to the high street and into pubs, restaurants and cafes on Monday, as the long winter lockdown gave way to the long awaited second phase of the Government’s roadmap to recovery.

People just wanted to be with other people, to smell the coffee, see and feel the goods and take in the experience of real everyday life. We all know only too well that you do not get any of this staring at and talking to a screen.

I was heartened by the optimism of both business owners and customers as both sets talked not only of what they had missed but looked forward to a new beginning.

The start of a renaissance for our high streets? – let us hope so.

Back to reality with the other news on Monday that the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) Trade Confidence Outlook for Q1 revealed the stark issues facing UK exporters in the first months of 2021.

Data from the survey of more than 2,900 exporting businesses revealed that 41 percent reported decreased export sales on the previous quarter. 20 percent did however, report increased export sales with 40 percent revealing no change.

Historically the proportion of firms reporting an increase in sales is at an all-time low and it is this figure which we need to keep an eye on in subsequent surveys.

Respondents cited Brexit and the impact of Covid-19 as the biggest causes of problems in trade with shipping delays, increased cost of transporting goods and extensive paperwork requirements. Worryingly, many saw the problems as structural rather than short-term issues likely to alleviate as companies adjusted to changes in the new EU-UK trading relationship.

In response, the government has set up the £20 million SME Brexit fund, but it will take much more than this to fix the current problems.

The message from Staffordshire Chambers and the BCC is that the difficulties exporters are facing are not ‘teething problems’. They are structural issues that, if not addressed now could lead to long term and potentially irreversible weakness to our export sector.

We are calling ion the UK and EU to get back around the table and produce solutions to reduce trade barriers and give exporters a fighting chance.

Finally, this week also saw the start of Ramadan, the holy month of the Islamic calendar in which Muslims commit to a period of fasting during daylight hours.

Given the physical demands of daytime fasting, staff observing Ramadan may require some adjustments to their working routine, even if they are working from home. This could include altering shift patterns, allowing staff to start and finish earlier in the day to aid with daytime fasting, or amending workplace duties to reduce the chance of fatigue impacting performance or increasing the risk of injury.

It is important to remember that the requirements may affect each person differently, and organisations should refrain from taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach to flexible working arrangements.

Here at the Chambers, we are committed to accommodating people from all backgrounds and we have for a long time had policies in place to ensure respect and equal treatment of all our staff.

If you would like any advice on how to accommodate staff during Ramadan please get in touch via the contact details below.

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

Research shows that entrepreneurship offers refugees economic independence; boosts self-confidence; and brings communities together. Refugees tend to be young adults who are less reliant on state benefits. As their businesses grow it brings more jobs, and generates more taxes, with economic activity far outweighing governmental costs. They have also been found to display key traits for business success, from high confidence to strong risk-awareness, and they have gone on to start countless businesses which enrich their host countries.

I am therefore extremely proud that Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce is one of four organisations across the UK to have received funding for a pilot scheme to support refugees starting a business. The UK Refugee Entrepreneurship Pilot Scheme commissioned four organisations to design and run tailored business support programmes for refugees over a one-year period. The aim of the pilot project was to prove the efficacy of refugee entrepreneurship programmes and to experiment with different models of delivery. It was designed and run by the Centre for Entrepreneurs and funded by the Home Office and The National Lottery Community Fund.

A report just published is the culmination of the year-long pilot scheme illustrates how Staffordshire Chambers and projects in Bristol, the East of England and Belfast provided direct support to 112 refugee participants. The evaluation looked behind the hard outcomes (numbers engaged, businesses launched) to identify the important role that refugee entrepreneurship programmes play in helping refugees acquire the skills, industry experience and finance needed to start and grow a business.

The Chamber’s pilot scheme was titled Positive Pathways and was coordinated by our entrepreneur advisor, Polly Hargreaves. The aims and objectives of our pilot were to highlight self-employment as an opportunity for refugees and help overcome initial barriers such as understanding the UK business culture. It was open to any refugee, with a leave to remain status, interested in exploring starting their own business. We had 52 refugees access our ‘Exploring self-employment’ sessions with an entrepreneurship advisor and we went on to recruit 18 participants, 12 men and six women. Over 12 months participants attended ten ‘Exploring self-employment sessions’ and underwent a 10-week enterprise workshop programme. They had further support for start-up grant funding, and post-start mentoring.

This complements our excellent existing business start-up programmes for adults and students in further education. So many refugees just want to make a positive start in their adopted country and by providing the opportunity, inspiration and support we can help them to get their lives back on track and help them integrate and make a positive contribution to the local economy.

The detailed evaluation report now presents a vision for refugee entrepreneurship programmes to be available nationwide and it can now be used by programme funders, delivery organisations, and wider stakeholders seeking to expand refugee entrepreneurship support across the UK. You can view the report UK refugee entrepreneurship pilot scheme – Independent Evaluation at www.centreforentrepreneurs.org

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

Sara’s blog – 2 April 2021

Visit of Government Minister to Staffordshire Chambers – and the next stage of recovery.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure to welcome Rt. Hon. Mims Davies, MP, Secretary of State for Employment to a round table discussion on Kickstart and helping young people into employment. Mims’ family comes from Stoke-on-Trent, so she has a real affinity with the city.

The meeting was arranged because the Kickstart programme, and building this into our businesses, is so important to the future of young people. It is an ambitious programme, aiming for 250,000 young people to be in six months employment via placements, available until December 2021, with the Government paying the wages.

Employers raised questions around making sure that the young people were getting the right training, both from the employers and training providers, to help with their employability skills. We talked about how businesses may be able to start advertising these jobs themselves and how they could work with the excellent youth charities we have across the city who can support young people in applying.

We also discussed how these businesses can be supported to amend their employment systems and contracts to take on a young person and how to develop links with colleges and training providers to offer a route into apprenticeships and full employment. Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire have an excellent partnership on skills through the Skills Advisory Panel and through the Staffordshire Partnership for Employability and Skill (SPES) and because of this, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is keen to maximise the impact that Kickstart will have in the area and ensure young people have better opportunities for long-term employment.

The Minister paid tribute to the excellent work that the Chambers’ network across England are doing on Kickstart as they have already generated over 10 percent of the placements’ target.The Minister was extremely open and honest and welcomed questions. It was encouraging to see so many of the local DWP and JCP staff, with whom we work so well, on the call too. I think she came away with positive news of the strong partnerships that exist across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire.

Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce is passionate about helping young people into employment post-pandemic and see Kickstart and other schemes to bring new enthusiasm into our brilliant businesses and organisations and support the growth of the economy and prosperity for all. We are proud to be a Gateway and have already but over 1200 job opportunities from businesses across the area for young people. The scheme lasts until December and we are sure that we can generate even more. Thanks to Jack Brereton, MP for facilitating this meeting in the first place, and for chairing on the day, and we hope Mims Davies will be able to visit in person to meet with many local businesspeople soon.

This week has also seen another key milestone step in the government’s Roadmap to Recovery with people able to meet again in an outdoor setting. The Easter break now gives us all an opportunity to take some time to relax with family and friends, reflect and look toward the next phase of recovery. It has been a tough start to 2021, and I do not need to remind you why. However, there is so much to look forward to, and we like every business have lots of exciting things planned for 2021 including our new peer to peer member platform, a brand-new website, the 2021 Business Awards and Business Festival and much more.

More of all this later, but for now have a happy Easter and continue to stay safe.

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

Earlier this week, members of the HS2 Community Engagement Team gave a presentation to the Chambers’ Council about engaging with local businesses to support the development of HS2.

Work is already well underway on phase 1 from London to Lichfield, and Staffordshire based businesses can benefit from a good proportion of around 400,000 supply chain opportunities.

Over 80 Staffordshire businesses, including several Chamber members, are already involved with HS2, which has a policy of ensuring that more than half of the suppliers are local to the route and over two thirds of all suppliers are SMEs.

Opportunities are available in the following sectors: accommodation; food and catering; creative; transport and logistics; employee services; site services and trade and construction.

There are various ways in which you can find out about opportunities including visiting the national public contracts website www.competefor.com/hs2 You can also register your business on the HS2 map at www.hs2.org.uk/local-business

There will also be seminars and other events run by HS2 in partnership with the Chambers and other organisations which we will publicise through our channels as they arise.

HS2 is one example of new job opportunities in new sectors offering hope for the future which leads into the Office for National Statistics (ONS) labour market statistics for March 2021, which were published on Tuesday.

There was a glimmer of hope as, despite unemployment rising slightly, the continued uptick in the payroll employment data indicates that the UK jobs market is becoming more resilient.

Ongoing wage support through the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme, greater clarity provided by the government’s roadmap and the adaptations made by some small firms to operate under lockdown restrictions, all helped to support higher payroll employment in February.

Whilst it is likely that extending furlough will limit job losses, the damage done by cash flow problems is still inflicting a heavy toll on business and this is likely to keep unemployment levels rising well beyond the full reopening of the economy.

The extension to the job support schemes will protect millions of jobs and livelihoods, but we will continue to lobby through the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) to make sure that those businesses and individuals who remain excluded from government support get the assistance they need to navigate a difficult period.

And looking longer term, we will continue to hold the Government to account on there promise of delivering on new jobs in sectors as outlined in their 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. https://bit.ly/31gvBn3

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

It is sad, but hardly a surprise, to see just how bad the pandemic has hit retailers, as illustrated in new research from PwC compiled by the Local Data Company (LDC).

According to the research 600 shops opened and 1,468 closed in the West Midlands in the last 12 months, a net decline of 868. Nationally, there was a net decline of 9,877.

Worryingly, PwC says, the real impact of the pandemic is yet to be felt as some stores ‘temporarily closed’ during lockdowns, are unlikely to return.

Retail parks have fared better than the other retail locations with net closures of 93 in the West Midlands, compared to shopping centres (285) and faring worst of all high streets (487).

But let’s stop the negativity there. Locally Burton-upon-Trent, Kidsgrove and Newcastle-under-Lyme are set to benefit from several million pounds the government’s Town Deals, as announced by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick in October.

They will have the opportunity to invest in their local economies at this critical time, implementing proposals submitted to the government’s £3.6 billion Towns Fund, which is designed create jobs and drive growth across the country, forming a cornerstone of this government’s levelling up agenda to help reshape our towns and cities into places where businesses and communities can thrive.

Stafford town centre has also been allocated more than £14 million from the £830 million Future High Streets Fund. The funding will help Stafford transform its high street into a vibrant hub whilst protecting and creating many jobs.

Our largest shopping centre, The Potteries Centre has hatched a plan to ensure that the centre survives and adapts to a new era for the town and city centre retail experience.

Online shopping has risen exponentially, and we have seen years of profit warnings and many business failures from the more traditional bricks and mortar retailers. The pandemic has just accelerated retail business failure and store closures.

The Potteries Centre plan puts a focus on local businesses to support the centre and the high-street.

The centre’s wider strategy includes the recruitment of two new letting agents in Barker Proudlove and BWD Retail, which will be working alongside The Potteries Centre team to ensure a diverse mix of local independents alongside its existing brands over the coming months.

Rather than getting downbeat the centre has identified an opportunity to regroup and reposition, by increasing support for local independents, who they see as playing a big part in its future.

Smaller towns have been faring better in recent years because of the variety and innovation of independent retailers and hospitality businesses who offer something unique and work hard to build customer loyalty. They are also not so exposed as they don’t rely on so many large chain ‘anchor’ businesses who leave a big hole when they close.

Landlords and local authorities also have a role to play, keeping rents and rates at levels which encourage growth, whilst being flexible to allow businesses to ride out any unexpected disruptions to trade.

Enhancing the high-street experience will increase visitor engagement. There is a real opportunity now for all town and city centres, to work smartly and collaboratively with all stakeholders including national chains and independents, food and drinks businesses, local authorities, education and community organisations to create centres with a board and exciting offer that engender pride and make visitors want to return.

If you would like to discuss any issues raised here please contact my personal assistant Vicki Hardie vicki.hardie@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

Earlier this week International Women’s Day celebrated the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, whilst also marking a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

Things have certainly moved on since I started my career and many more women now hold senior positions in business and in the public and third sectors.

I am proud to be a part of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) network which boasts 70 per cent women employees in half of its 123 member Chambers and a female chief executive in 40 per cent of those Chambers.

I know many successful women in Staffordshire, and it is great to see them making such a positive difference to our daily lives.

Whether it be International Women’s Day or any day of the year, what we aim to do at the Chamber is to encourage and enable all women to realise their full potential and make a positive contribution to business and to society.

The Chamber network is full of women who have achieved success, from running their own lifestyle business to holding the position of chief executive in a large organisation and they are constantly giving their time to encourage others through events, networking and mentoring.

In addition, Staffordshire Chambers offers support, encouragement and confidence building through our Women, Work and Wellbeing Network.

The Network engages with women facing barriers to progression and operates through a series of events, workshops, keynote speakers and one-to-one sessions.

Sessions are intentionally relaxed and informal and Chamber staff and participants make it a welcome forum for first time visitors, providing a safe space to build confidence and connections. If you would like to find out more about Women, Work and Wellbeing visit https://bit.ly/3vbVLFq

Additionally, if you are a woman and are considering starting your own business, you can contact our business start-up advisor Aly Davidson for an informal chat: aly.davidson@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

I am relieved, as I am sure that you are, that Chancellor, Rishi Sunak seems to have heeded the advice from business leaders and extend furlough and support for the self-employed, extend business rates relief and VAT reductions and give our region’s firms the chance not only to restart, but also to rebuild.

The furlough scheme has been a lifeline for companies and extension gives firms much more clarity on the way ahead and will allow many to plan with greater optimism and confidence as they look to restart and rebuild over the coming months.

The hardest hit sectors such as hospitality and retail are set to benefit from further three-month business rate relief and VAT held at 5 percent as they look forward to reopening in the coming weeks.

While no business will relish paying higher rates of Corporation Tax in future, the impact of the Chancellor’s tough decision is blunted by the big new incentives for investment, lower rates for the smallest firms, and the extension of Coronavirus support measures in the short term.

This Budget provides reassurance to businesses, if they can restart and rebuild according to the Government’s road map. If firms face unexpected bumps in the road, the Chancellor must be prepared to act until the economy is firing on all cylinders again.

Key budget announcements include:

• The furlough scheme has been extended until the end of September. Furloughed employees will continue to receive 80 percent of their salary for hours not worked.

• Self-employed workers will be able to claim a fourth grant from the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme worth 80 percent of three months’ trading profits at up to £7,500.

• Corporation tax will rise to 25 percent from April 2023. However, there will be protection for those businesses with profits of less than £50,000.

• Business rates relief for the hardest hit sectors, such as retail and hospitality has been extended for three months.

• Businesses investing in new equipment can offset all the cost (with an additional 30 percent off) in a bid to encourage more firms to invest in technology.

• Hospitality and tourism firms will benefit from VAT being held at 5 percent. Other measures announced in the Budget include:

• £5bn grant scheme to help English high-street shops and hospitality businesses.

• An additional £400m for the arts sector – with £300m added to the existing Culture Recovery Fund, £90m for England’s museums and cultural bodies and £77m for similar initiatives in the devolved nations.

• £1.65bn towards the UK’s Covid vaccination rollout to help the country to achieve its aim of offering a first dose to every adult by the end of July.

• A ‘fast-track’ visa scheme to help start-up and rapidly growing tech firms source talent from overseas.

• An extra £126m into the traineeship scheme, in which the government pay employers who give young people work placements.

• The ‘Help to Grow’ scheme in which thousands of small businesses will be offered free MBA-style management training.

• A £150m pot to help communities take over a local pub or sports club at threat of closure.

Staffordshire Chambers is excited to be part of the West Midlands Expo, a virtual event taking place from 22nd to 26th March. The event is sponsored by Access2Finance.

Throughout the week, each Chamber in the West Midlands will be hosting a day to allow visitors and exhibitors to discover more about their county and its businesses.

Our day is Friday 26th March, when we will be hosting webinars on a range of topics including the end of furlough, UK and EU trade, HR, and wellbeing.

Businesses also have the opportunity of booking a virtual exhibition stand during the week where you can invite customers and potential customers to view your business and find out more about your products and services. To book free tickets for the Expo click here: http://bit.ly/3v062Vc

For all other enquiries including booking a virtual stand, email Laura Hodgkiss: laura.hodgkiss@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

Finally, many businesses across England can now see a path to restart and recovery following the PMs announcement on Monday. Absolute clarity and honesty will be needed every step of the way over the coming weeks so that businesses have a fighting chance to rebuild, and in many cases to reopen.

The stop-start dynamics of the past year, which has so damaged business and communities, looks finally to be coming to an end.

Even with the PMs new roadmap, the future of thousands of firms and millions of jobs still hangs by a thread. Many hard-hit businesses simply do not have the cash reserves needed to survive the remaining weeks until they can reopen.

The Chambers, along with every business, will hold the Prime Minister to his pledge to support firms for the duration of the pandemic, as this gruelling marathon nears its end. Businesses have haemorrhaged billions of pounds over the past year and need action now.

We continue to lobby for all key support schemes for business to be extended – through the summer and wherever possible throughout 2021 – to ensure that as many viable firms as possible can make it to the finish line and recover.

It is also critical that alongside the pace of the vaccination programme, workplace testing is expanded to businesses of all sizes and continued for as long as is necessary – to help keep our companies and communities open over the months ahead.

Next Wednesday sees another crucial date for business as Chancellor, Rishi Sunak presents perhaps the most important Budget in a long while.

Whilst we accept that the Government has done much to protect business and jobs, we are hoping that the call from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) to the Government to finish the job as we move back to a fully open economy, has been heeded and acted upon.

The Chambers is hopeful that we can see an extension of the furlough scheme from the end of April to at least 21st June; a lengthening of repayment periods for VAT bills and an extension of the business rates holiday to help businesses who will be forced to close for a little while longer.

Chamber patrons, Dains Accountants, are hosting a post-Budget webinar on Thursday 4 March from 08.30am to 9.30am. Their tax expert Ann Diggins will present a concise summation of the main points of the Budget and how it will affect your business.

Any of you who have seen Ann’s presentation in previous years will know how she boils down the Budget into a fact-filled and often humorous half-hour which highlights the headlines as well as the facts that may have been intentionally buried in the detail.

If you are in business, you cannot afford to miss this event. You can register here.

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

For many years we have used our quarterly economic survey (QES) as a barometer on the local economy.

As we approach the twelve-month anniversary of the first full lockdown, and with the Chancellor’s Budget just around the corner, it is no understatement to say that this is one of the most important times for businesses across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire to complete the QES.

The information you provide will give an insight into the impact COVID 19 and lockdown have had on local business and will help to shape and influence current policy thinking with survey data being shared with the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), Government departments including HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office as well as the Bank of England.

The more businesses that the fill in the QES, the more weight it carries so we are keen to hear from firms of all shapes and sizes (starts ups, sole traders, SMEs, medium sized and large corporations) to provide an accurate picture of the current business landscape. It takes a maximum of five minutes to complete the online form.

We understand your time is precious, even more so now, so thank you in advance for your input to the survey. You can go straight to the QES here: https://bit.ly/3amE11S

As we draw towards a year of virtual networking, memories of meeting up in a room with likeminded businesspeople could be from another age as we have all become so used to virtual meetings.

I know Zoom events or a catch up on Teams are becoming tiresome for many but for now it’s all we have, and we all need to hang in there until we can again meet face-to-face.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s address on Monday will give us some idea of when this could be, but in the meantime, perhaps we should be thankful that we have the technology to be able to meet virtually. Imagine if this had happened ten years ago. The technology would be basic, and the broadband networks wouldn’t have been able to cope with the traffic.

Online forums and events are a lifeline of support for many independent firms providing, connectivity and a support network. Many businesses have found making connections vital in keeping their business brand visible during the pandemic.

We have our next Simply Networking event at 10am on Friday 26 February. It is a great opportunity to make some new contacts and put your business in the Spotlight. Hopefully, we will be ‘back in the room’ very soon but until then if you would like to come along to this free event you can by registering here: http://bit.ly/2ZD3b6d

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

Whatever stage your business is at, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day and lose sight of your medium and long-term goals. Throw a pandemic in the mix for good measure and it’s a wonder that anyone is keeping on track with their business plan (or what business plan?).

What we all need is some friendly, experienced help – nothing too formal, just the opportunity for a chat with someone who has been there, done that and lived through other recessions. And someone who can view the business without the emotional attachment of owners and senior management.

We have a team of experienced business mentors who all volunteer to act as critical friends, guides, and sources of significant expertise, depending on the needs of the business who asks for help.

Our mentors may be still working or semi-retired but what they all love helping other business people achieve success and have a commitment to building a dynamic and stronger local economy.

Many of our mentors have given the free 16 hours of advice – and then carried on working with the business because they have proved to add significant value.

Mentor Jason Moody explains his ethos, “I encourage the business owner to be clear about what represents success. Transparent and simple reporting is vital.

“It’s important to identify the few tasks that will have the biggest impact. Doing a great job of the most important tasks is much better than an average job of everything on your ‘to do’ list. I also want to see clarity and conviction in the eyes of the individuals I work with.”

Every business can benefit and if you feel you and your business could be one of those now, please drop Richard Carty an email and let’s get you hooked up with someone to make a difference: richard.carty@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

But what happens if you are just thinking about starting out in business? Its not just established businesses who can benefit from support.

The pandemic has seen many people working from home which has meant time to ponder a new way of working and self-employment. Or maybe they are facing redundancy or have had enough of the prolonged period of furlough.

If you are looking to start up on your own, we have a team of experienced business advisers who provide tailored support to help you get up and running by getting to grips with essentials such as cashflow forecasting, business planning, marketing, and helping you to access grants and support.

We are also providing specialist help for young people considering self-employment, post further education.

If you or anyone you know would like to discuss your business idea and start your journey to self-employment contact Tom Nadin tom.nadin@staffordshirechambers.co.uk

If you want to talk to us about any business issues, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: info@staffordshirechambers.co.uk