Comment: Firms need to work together to boost the local economy

First published in Opinion

Cumbrian born and bred, I am incredibly proud to call this county my own. Passionate about our businesses and our people, my Cumbrian heritage is something that I would never change.

Last year I was delighted to be named Chair for the Cumbrian branch of the Institute of Directors and am excited to be playing a hands-on role in supporting the business community throughout the county.

Within Cumbria we have a relatively robust economy - take manufacturing, for example. During a time when the United Kingdom has witnessed a significant decline in this industry, here it has continued to hold its own.

Our economy has a lot to be proud of. That said, there are some significant obstacles in the way of Cumbrian businesses being able to compete to the level they should, namely our geographical remoteness, difficult terrains and long distance to markets.

It must be addressed: how do we overcome these issues? How do we decrease the distance to the market and make ourselves more accessible?

There are a range of practices that could be put in place to help overcome these problems, some on the smaller end of the scale, which are fairly easy to work on, and some long-term changes that require significant investment.

Firstly to look at the larger, long-term actions, we would need further investment into our infrastructure. Making improvements to our transport links, for example increasing the speed and frequency of public transport, would make our vibrant hubs more accessible and would all help to combat our geographical issues.

As well as making changes to improve our physical distance, we should also be investing in our broadband services that will help shorten our relative distance and boost our communication.

While, of course, these larger changes all sound great and it would be fantastic to implement them, there is little denying that during a time of economic uncertainty securing investment on this scale is incredibly difficult. With this in mind, large-scale changes might have to wait.

However, just because there is little investment, it certainly does not mean that we are beaten. For me, simply by working closer as a county and opening up dialogue between businesses, we can still work to make headway with some of our issues.

We must not forget that we do already have strong transport links - reasonable train connections, decent roads links and being a county with a coast, of course – ports. Where investment is scare we must utilise the resources that we have at our disposal.

It is crucial that we initiate a conversation between business leaders to make the best of what we have. While we cannot change the fact that we are often quite far away from the markets that we need to access, we are able to improve efficiency in transporting goods, people and communications infrastructure.

By encouraging businesses to collaborate and work together when moving goods, they would be able to significantly drive down the costs required to do so.

Within Cumbria, we are lucky to have few directly competing businesses but many complimentary ones, making this communication possible. This change requires no additional investment or change to the infrastructure but merely building relationships and encouraging collaboration to reach a mutual goal.

Beginning this dialogue is one of the central focal points, which I intend to focus on as I undertake my role as Cumbria Chair of the IoD.

The Institute of Directors is a fantastic vehicle to open up this dialogue. Our range of events across the county are a great place for those at the top level to network and develop professional relationships, discuss mutual problems, get a conversation started and make some important changes.

Neil McNicholas, Cumbria chairman of the Institute of Directors

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