The importance of local businesses in Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 18:56 01 October 2020

Derbyshire had a number of prominent market towns

Derbyshire had a number of prominent market towns

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Derbyshire Life speaks to East Midlands Chamber chief executive Scott Knowles about the prominent role of businesses within our communities

Scott Knowles, Chamber chief executiveScott Knowles, Chamber chief executive

Covid-19 continues to influence pretty much every aspect of our daily lives and it’s difficult to find many positives from this extraordinary period – they are, undoubtedly, few and far between.

Yet some can be found. There are the frontline, key workers we are all indebted to. There’s the sense of spirit that has been fostered – demonstrated through drawings of rainbows which still adorn house windows up and down the country and the clap for carers initiative, which succeeded in bringing people together in those dark early days of lockdown.

This sense of community has stood us all in good stead through the challenges and it’s here that we’ve arguably found another plus point; our communities’ increasing connection and synergy with business.

Given the largely rural nature of life in Derbyshire – certainly in bygone years – you could argue a tangible link between businesses and communities has always existed here. Thoughts turn to the family-run local firms in our towns and villages that have passed through the generations, the independent high street shops, the local newsagents, fishmongers, bakers, florists and all the long-lived institutions we take pride in supporting.

The future of retail is an important consideration moving forwardThe future of retail is an important consideration moving forward

Even the larger companies, multinationals, household names and the like, are upping the ante with regards to their growing commitment to our local communities. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is now much more than just a buzz word or a concept to pay lip service to.

The corporate world is, and needs to be, cut and thrust and competitive. However, the days of ‘profit is king’ may be drawing to a close as priorities shift and the mood music of how businesses use their influence gradually changes.

And Covid-19 has perhaps accelerated that re-evaluation of businesses’ visions and values – subsequently bringing businesses and the communities they serve closer together. It’s a view Matlock-based Scott Knowles, chief executive at East Midlands Chamber of Commerce, certainly subscribes to.

‘You’ve definitely seen that strengthening of the link between businesses and communities,’ argues Scott.

‘When we’re on the other side of the pandemic, many businesses won’t be measuring success purely on the greatest return for shareholders, there will be other recognised measures of success and I think one of those will be about how businesses support the communities in which they operate and about how businesses demonstrate their sustainability and green credentials.

‘As the region’s largest business support organisation, you might assume every enquiry we deal with is about helping businesses survive given the pandemic, but that hasn’t been the case. We’ve had a great number of enquiries from businesses centred on becoming more sustainable and green-focused and that’s really interesting.’

While the age of CSR was definitely upon us pre-Covid, the focus on bridging the gap between businesses and communities and making the former an even greater force for good in our villages, towns and cities has certainly intensified in these strangest of times.

‘We’ve had lots of enquiries about how businesses can do more corporate social responsibility and I actually think the ‘C’ for corporate should stand for community,’ suggests Scott, who heads up an organisation which supports the interests of over 4,200 businesses across Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire and carries the mission statement of: ‘Enhancing East Midlands businesses and communities’.

‘I think in general, certainly speaking from experience here in Derbyshire, it does feel like this concept is becoming much stronger. It’s about looking at supporting local charities, local education, the work that happens in schools, giving people the tools to forge their careers and so much more. There’s a lot more to do of course, but the momentum continues to grow.

‘An increasing number of employers are looking at these important components and it all comes under that ‘communities’ banner, and that’s extremely welcome.’

As for the here and now, it has understandably been an extremely busy time for the Chamber, which has had to evolve its wide offering in order to support our local businesses – large and small – through these challenging times.

And, as Scott explains, being fleet of foot and balancing short-term needs with a longer-term outlook for our businesses here in Derbyshire has been essential.

‘The first two to three weeks, especially when we went into lockdown, were really about helping businesses of all kinds – every sector and every size – to navigate all the national business support and financial help announced by Government.

‘Announcements were being made at pace but not necessarily with all the detail. We were receiving about ten times the number of enquiries we normally would, all from businesses needing immediate answers – ‘How does the latest intervention work?’, ‘How do I access this grant?’ – these types of questions, because at the time you had a lot of organisations whose cash flow had dried up overnight.

‘Once everybody had got used to the different interventions to help sustain businesses, the focus became less general and far more specific – the requirements and pressure points can vary significantly depending on sector, size and geography and a manufacturing firm in Derby will face very different challenges to a B&B in the High Peak.

‘We digitised all our events programmes – normally we deliver about 300 events a year, which have always been face-to-face and all those were virtualised pretty much overnight. We then got into delivering around 60 webinars and again a lot of the content initially was not only around helping businesses access the support available, but also how to maximise productivity when working from home and similar pertinent issues.

‘That was the evolution of the Chamber’s offer and it keeps evolving. Emerging from lockdown in itself created challenges for the business community. As we move towards the end of furlough there are inevitably queries around employment law issues; with offices gradually reopening there are questions around health and safety concerns, so it will keep evolving.

‘There has also been a huge amount of lobbying work taking place over the summer. If you think about some of the great market towns we have here in Derbyshire – Matlock, Bakewell, Buxton, Ashbourne and the likes – each requires different support so we have been lobbying around how Government can enhance support for retail, for example.’

As previously mentioned, finding positives from this global pandemic isn’t an easy task. However, people – and by proxy businesses – have a long track record of adapting to change and the current situation does at least give businesses the opportunity to prepare robustly for the future.

And how that plays out in Derbyshire will undoubtedly be nuanced, as Scott explains.

‘Many of the Government’s interventions went far further than I thought they would, but you look at Derby as a city, then a few miles out you reach the market towns and then you’re at the rural business community so you need different levers to pull; there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all support.

‘Government is about a blanket approach from a national perspective, but locally it is about having bespoke programmes. We have one at the moment focusing on rural businesses, helping them embrace new ways of working – how they can invest in digital infrastructure, for example – so that whether Covid turns out to be a one-off or a recurring event, firms will be better prepared around business continuity.

‘Similarly, how do our businesses work from home without missing a beat or how can they continue in their places of work? Getting a handle on these important elements helps ensure everyone will be better prepared. We will all learn from this experience, painful as it has been, and will be more resilient as a result – which helps protect jobs and allows our communities here in Derbyshire to thrive.’ It would take a brave person to predict how the future will unfold in the coming months and years and it’s highly likely that the challenges of 2020 will have far-reaching implications for some time to come. From a continuity perspective business leaders, Scott suggests, have been given plenty of food for thought. ‘I think many businesses will adopt a hybrid model going forward,’ he argues.

‘I was always quite willing to drive up and down the M1, but none of the technologies we are now using instead of physically meeting are brand new. Microsoft Teams, Zoom; they’ve both been around a while. I could have been using these rather than burning carbon footprint and losing time. A lot of businesses have recognised working from home can be very productive, but can also be isolating at times. As a business we have been back in the offices a few weeks and we have had really positive feedback with staff welcoming that hybrid working pattern – in the office two or three days a week and home two or three days a week.

‘Everybody has had time to reflect. Lockdown accelerated a lot of firms’ IT strategies from two to three years to “get it done this weekend”. Remote working is here to stay, but I don’t think it is the panacea people thought it might be at the start. There is value in seeing your colleagues and in engaging face-to-face; I think most will continue some form of hybrid delivery.’

Businesses and their people will no doubt take these current challenges in their stride and the resilient business community we have here in Derbyshire will be no exception.

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