Q: How has the landscape in South Tyneside changed over the last 12 months due to COVID-19?
A: The Covid-19 pandemic has sent huge economic shockwaves across the North East and the globe. The unprecedented scale and nature of the crisis has, and continues to have, major consequences for the region and South Tyneside, with significant impacts on our residents, businesses and communities.
South Tyneside has been hit disproportionately hard, not least because it is a coastal community, heavily reliant on highly impacted sectors like tourism and culture. Many of our businesses effectively came to a halt during the lockdowns, and with local restrictions we have witnessed massive drops in footfall in our town centres, along with redundancies and widespread furloughing. Since March, there has been a 48% increase in the unemployment claimant count, over 4,000 residents were still furloughed at the end of September and vacancy rates are 11% down on the same period last year.
South Tyneside Council has played a strong leadership role, providing advice and support and distributing over £27m of grants to 3,000 local businesses, along with a range of support for residents looking for new or alternative employment.
Whilst our vulnerabilities as an area have been exacerbated, we have seen volunteering and dedication to helping others of a scale not witnessed for generations. It has also brought new opportunities to forge a bright future for the area, a once in a lifetime opportunity to seize the changes around remote working, advanced manufacturing, the green economy and the importance of natural and cultural assets, to foster a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery.
Q: How are you now planning for 2021 and laying the foundations for a successful post-pandemic future – will you be looking to work with central Government for necessary support and funding to achieve your goals?
A: Working with our local and regional partners, we have launched an Economic Recovery Plan for the Borough, which sets out a series of interventions to help create future growth and prosperity, delivering 10,000 jobs over the next five years. The plan sets out what is needed in the short, medium and long-term to drive a green, sustainable and digitally focused economic recovery. It particularly highlights opportunities, such as capitalising on the borough’s reputation as a location for innovation and investment, particularly around the offshore and renewable energy sectors.
The plan, which dovetails with national and regional approaches being developed to stimulate the economy, has a major focus on skills and green growth, and calls for more flexibility of powers and funding so that services and programmes can be designed and delivered locally.
It sets out 20 bold interventions, including building new Covid proofed fit-for-purpose business accommodation; placing the borough at the heart of a North East Free Trade Zone linking the Port of Tyne to International Advanced Manufacturing Park, driving the rollout of full fibre broadband; making key waterfront sites offshore wind ready for investors; developing a nationally-recognised and digitally-connected Cultural Quarter around The Word and tackling the barriers to good health and wellbeing. This is supported by a detailed delivery plan and a list of shovel-ready schemes that will be put forward to government.
Q: South Tyneside looks set to benefit from the burgeoning offshore wind and renewable energy sector with Port of Tyne being chosen as the manufacturing base for the world’s largest wind farm – Dogger Bank. Moving forward, how will the council look to maximise this opportunity and make sure as many of the skilled jobs being created will go to local people?
A: The announcement by Equinor and SSE Renewables, the two companies behind the world’s biggest offshore wind farm Dogger Bank, to build a new Operations and Maintenance (O&M) at the Port of Tyne is great news for South Tyneside and the wider North East. This initial investment will lead to the creation of 200 jobs, significant private sector investment and supply chain opportunities
South Tyneside has a reputation for providing an unrivalled skills pool for offshore and marine roles, as well as fabrication skills, and those necessary for engineering design and innovation. We have a well-established joint commitment between education and business, to mould work-ready further education students and graduates by giving them ‘real world’ experiences to guide them into their chosen field of expertise.
We are working with the sector to upskill and develop the current workforce to meet this demand to create strength in our proposition to attract further investment from the offshore energy sector to the borough. We are doing this by working with schools, further education, higher education and training providers to promote career opportunities in the sector and inform curriculum development. We are also working with partners, such as South Tyneside College, Jobcentre Plus and the National Careers Service to access the pool of potential employees.
Funding from the North East LEP has been secured to create a Manufacturing Zone within Jarrow Business Centre to support high growth businesses in the offshore energy supply chain. The zone will provide affordable, high quality manufacturing space and incubation support for high growth potential SMEs operating in the advanced manufacturing and energy sectors in South Tyneside, creating and sustaining employment opportunities and supporting productivity, innovation and competitiveness.
We will continue to work with our local firms to help them to diversify into the offshore supply chain through dedicated business support (particularly to maximise export opportunities post EU Exit) and grow-on space, nurturing South Tyneside’s offshore cluster.
Although the current challenges we face are significant and may be exacerbated by EU Exit and the Climate Change Emergency, we are in a stronger position to weather this storm than we ever were before. We are confident that this opportunity will help us to bounce back from this unprecedented challenge, of adapting and ensuring the future is bright.