Agenda item

Economic Impact of the Recession in Breckland (Agenda Item 7)

Report of the Strategic Director (Services).


The Trainee Economic Development Officer presented the report, which was made in response to the request made at the last meeting for an overview of the current economic situation in Breckland and how the recession had impacted on the local economy.


In summary, it was explained that the recession would continue throughout 2009, although there was evidence that the rate of decline was slowing and showing signs of improvement.


House prices were beginning to stabilise and borrowing was increasing.  Businesses were less pessimistic than they were earlier in the year but, even if the economic situation improved, expansion was likely to be slow until there was confidence in a sustained recovery.


There was a range of support being offered to the business community through the local enterprise agencies, Business Link and Norfolk and Waveney Enterprise Service and Breckland liaised with these agencies and also gave support itself through visits and signposting services, as well as running business initiatives, for example the Breckland Enterprise and Learning Account (BELA).  The Economic Development team had also developed a Business Response Toolkit which was readily available to provide support to businesses facing an administration or possible redundancy situation.


An update on the situation affecting the Council’s commercial portfolio was given.  The portfolio’s overall occupancy rate was currently holding steady at 91%.  There was continued interest in lettings and sales and the Council was diversifying the portfolio to meet the needs of a changing market, e.g. by turning vacant rooms in the Dereham Business Centre into meeting rooms, and introducing a Finders Fees service, as well as a programme of property improvements.


As a result, the commercial service was bucking market trends at present, and there were new sites being developed at Victory Park, Attleborough and on the Thetford Enterprise Park.


In considering the report, Members highlighted their concerns over the fact that the shortage of skills was still a significant issue, not only within Breckland but across the County as a whole.


The Chairman expressed the view that this was a fundamental problem for the County and a key factor affecting progress in improving the situation was the critical under-funding of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) in Norfolk, which was responsible for further education.


Another Member added that another area of concern was that of those youngsters in the 16-19 age group who were not in full-time or further education, where support was needed.  However, while the Council should do what it could to help, it had to be remembered that it was not a key provider for education and there were a range of other agencies and organisations involved where joint working on economic issues was to be encouraged.


The Member also commented that the Commercial Property portfolio was a long-standing and important sector for the Council, providing a good return on investment, which supported the other services of the Council and it was pleasing to hear of the continuing good progress of the portfolio.  Business Link was cited as one of the key agencies along with Breckland and others in providing business advice and it was felt important that the various agencies worked together in a co-ordinated manner.


Further to the points made on further education, the Economic Development Officer drew attention to the new Diplomas scheme being implemented through the High Schools in conjunction with the Connexions service (which did not form part of the further education service through the LSC).  There was concern that the schools were not engaging with or involving local businesses and as a result were missing vital links.  The Economic Development Officer explained that she would therefore be looking to follow this up with the relevant bodies.  A particular concern related to the position at Thetford, where the schools were not participating in the diploma scheme.  (On the latter point, Mr. Kybird requested details which he could refer to the Moving Thetford Forward Group.)


Members were concerned to note the above situation, although it was pointed out that the further education system, through the various Colleges, was fully engaged with the business sector and that they worked well together.  It appeared to be the schools sector where this was not happening.


A member felt it would be useful to have a breakdown of the figures given in the table of qualifications in the report to indicate how/if improvements were being made and to highlight any trends.


Referring back to commercial activity in the housing market, a member wondered whether developers could stimulate the market by commencing starts on sites at an earlier stage than normal and couple this with a reduction in prices for the affordable housing market.  Another member responded that there was already a backlog of vacant sites and until that cleared, developers were unlikely to bring more sites forward.


At the conclusion of the discussion, the Chairman thanked the officers for their report and the position was noted.

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