GFirst LEP

"It is about making the county as strong as possible - and helping businesses survive"

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 14 October 2020 9:59

It makes for a dramatic headline without a doubt, but it was not a negative message, it was the boss of the county’s most powerful business group talking about what his organisation’s goal is now.

Pre-pandemic Gloucestershire’s local enterprise partnership, GFirstLEP, was in a dynamic routine of annual business plans which made winning millions of pounds, mainly for county infrastructure projects, look easy. 

It had helped give birth to the business support network that is the Growth Hub, was investing in everything from new road systems to college buildings and shopping centres as it sought to carry out its role – as a catalyst for the county's economy. 

Then came the pandemic, business needed everything from an emergency helpline and hope to leadership and action – and like Clark Kent of old, the LEP stepped into the phone box and out again, transforming as it went. 

One of the first things it did was convince Government to allow its outgoing CEO Diane Savory OBE, to be able to stay on past her regulation maximum term of office. 

It agreed, then duly also bagged her talents to help steer the national High Street Task Force, which she has done while chairing the LEP through its transformation and the Cheltenham Economic Task Force.

David Owen, the chief executive of GFirst LEP, already a figurehead for business-led organisation found himself front and centre in a different role – and the LEP began to re-state its vision for the county. 

“We have to grow the Gloucestershire economy. That is what we are here to do, but right now we need to help businesses survive and come out of the crisis as strong as possible so when this is all over we have an economy left,” he said, distilling what the LEP’s purpose is now, and not beating around the bush about it. 

Two key factors were already in place in its favour– taken for granted now, but hard-won, said Mr Owen. Its board consists of business people committed to Gloucestershire, and the relationships between key players, not least the county council, and other organisations were all strong.

Read more: Take part in our survey: Where now for Gloucestershire? 

“We have a board of directors that has been meeting since the crisis began. They are committed to and passionate about Gloucestershire and fundamental to what we do and they just get on with the job, despite having to run their own businesses in many cases,” said Mr Owen, not bothering to hide how in awe he is of their commitments. 

Likewise, the Growth Hubs, whose office spaces and regular seminars and advice sessions closed in Lockdown, but became something of a fourth emergency services to the county’s business community.

Businesses left stunned by the almighty barrage of covid-19 picked were directed to where and how to access Government finance, professional advice, or simply someone to talk to as they digested the crisis. 

Meanwhile the LEP began to play some powerful cards – unveiling or confirming major investment projects totalling £11.3 million and creating 1,000 jobs for Gloucestershire. 

These included the Minster Innovation Exchange in Cheltenham, The Gloucestershire Applied Digital Skills Centre, with Cirencester College, ‘Cyber Incubation Units’ with Gloucestershire College, ‘The Digital Innovation Farm’ with Hartpury University and ‘A Construction Education Centre’ with KW Bell Group Ltd in Cinderford. 

Neither did the LEP’s public relations wing hide the fact the board had immediately begun talking too all of the county’s MP’s to ensure other commitments to Gloucestershire – like the £435 million investment in the A417 at Birdlip remained solid. 

Again, the vibes from those meetings were good and relationships between all parties positive and that was allowed topermeate outwards.

No one was pretending a magic wand existed, but the announcements gave some bedrock certainty when all else had become change. 

And then there was the advertising campaign – which has just released its third banner. Put together by the LEP and Cheltenham marketing experts Mighty, it calls on the county to Think Gloucestershire when it comes to spending – for obvious reasons. 

Now is the time to build a strong economy – not a false economy,” declares the latest release. 

And, of course, that video – the one with Mr Owen striding along the Cotswold escarpment delivering a rallying cry to the county. In keeping with its mantra, the LEP employed the services of Gloucestershire-basedBexmedia to shoot the film and relied again on Mighty for those clever words. 

There was hesitation by Mr Owen and the LEP about its release, but in the end its timing – immediately after one of the grimmer announcements which have fallen to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deliver – helped it strike a powerful chord for many.

You can sense no one thinks the battle is won – with expectations it could extend well into next year, but the determination is robust. 

“We have been having somereally successful conversations with some of our partner organisations over the last few days about what are the next stages of the recovery. We know furloughing was helping, and we need to be ready for when that starts to end. 

“Business who can help when people will be crucial. And we need to help SMEs to see if there are ways they can benefit from any support that is there, to help those that need to find other markets.  

We are asking whether there are ways that we can assist in making them more relevant. And how can we make sure this happens fast. 

“For those businesses in the hardest hit sectors, like hospitality – how canwe help them deliver their services over the Christmas period? The more we can do to support local businesses through that period the better. That will give them the best chance of survival.

Read more: Take part in our survey: Where now for Gloucestershire? 

It would be wrong to sign the article off without mentioning another observation. 

The most recent LEP newsletter was released just last week, on the eve of Mental Health Awareness Day, and used this as its point of focus. 

“It is perhaps even more important, to keep an eye on your own personal well-being.” 

As it said, and it is a phrase that could cover off so much currently, “there are no easy solutions”. 

It would also be wrong to sign off on such a reflective note. 

“There are lots of good stories out there. There are too many good things happening,” said Mr Owen.

 Top picture: David Owen, courtesy of Cheltenham marketing and design agency Mighty