Rural response - Shropshire Council

The COVID-19 economic taskforce has focused on bringing partnerships together to deliver SC’s pandemic response.


The context

Shropshire Council (SC) is a unitary authority in the West Midlands. Shropshire is both the second largest inland rural county in England and one of the most sparsely populated, with almost half of the population living in rural areas. Although it has 17 market towns and key centres and a growing Agri-tech and food manufacturing base, a large proportion of residents travel out of county to work given its proximity to the North West, Birmingham, North Wales and central England.

Shropshire has seen COVID-19 impacts on the retail, hospitality, and leisure sector as well as challenges in the agricultural sector due to Brexit.

Pre-COVID-19, Shropshire had a high employment rate of 79.7 per cent (year ending March 2020, Annual Population Survey), which has fallen by 1.6 per cent (year ending September 2020). The employment rate for those 35-49 has decreased by 3.3 per cent. The UC claimant count has more than doubled since March 2020, and has risen most for those 18-24, but is below rates for the West Midlands. 28 per cent of UC claimants are over 50. As of January 2021, there was a 15 per cent furlough take-up rate in Shropshire, (c20,000) down from the initial figure of 26.3 per cent in April-May 2020.


The team

SC’s local strategic and collaborative approaches are focused towards meeting rural and community needs, including adjusting to climate change, political change, and COVID-19 to preserve and maximise the county’s natural capital. SC’s Economic Growth and Business and Inward Investment teams have worked together to coordinate Shropshire’s approach to economic recovery. This has included working closely with the council’s partners on growth programmes and areas opportunities, administering central government COVID-19 support schemes, and bringing key stakeholders together into an economic taskforce and a social taskforce with adult and social care services. Employment and skills support is an important element of both taskforces.


The response

The COVID-19 economic taskforce has focused on bringing partnerships together to deliver SC’s pandemic response. The taskforce has brought together partners including the Marches LEP, National Farmers Union, DWP, the skills and employment partnerships, schools, colleges, and Homes England as a support network to share information and data to understand change and trends in the region and across the country.

Since it has not been possible to look at past recessions for reliable predictors of economic impact the taskforce has been data-driven from the beginning, and SC has been tracking the data over time. The taskforce also has an action focus and collaborating on the refresh of SC’s economic growth strategy later this year.

Shropshire is an entrepreneurial economy that is heavily reliant on SMEs and micro-businesses. Twelve thousand of Shropshire’s businesses employ less than four people, and only a small number of businesses have more than 200 employees. In the retail, hospitality and leisure sector, Shropshire promotes itself as a place that is more about independent businesses rather than large companies and businesses. The county prides itself on having high streets that offer a shopping experience taking in a range of local bespoke and artisan businesses, boutiques, and eateries, beyond the perhaps more usual high street chain store experiences.

COVID-19 has brought changes in work patterns and businesses’ mindsets. Shropshire has traditionally been considered a commutable area and a nice place to live, or somewhere to retire and set up a lifestyle business. Increasingly, individuals and businesses are saying, “if this is a place I want to live, why wouldn’t I work here?”

This dynamic, coupled with Shropshire’s location, has resulted in a large increase in business enquiries including from:

  • Companies who no longer see the need to base themselves or their workforce in a big city. SC is looking to draw on central government funding to develop more coworking space in the county so that post-COVID there will be local sites for employees to meet in or to work locally outside of the home.
  • Individuals currently on furlough or may have been redundant. Shropshire has start-up support offers in their local Growth Hub. Shropshire has high self-employment rates (13.8 per cent, higher than the West Midlands and national average).
  • Individuals and businesses are encouraged to use the following websites:
    • https://www.shropshire.gov.uk/business-support/
    • https://www.marchesgrowthhub.co.uk/
    • http://www.investinshropshire.co.uk/

The agricultural sector was also an area of focus for the SC before the pandemic, both preparing for Brexit and addressing succession planning for farming families. However, there are opportunities in the Agri-tech sector and around automation, tying in with the wider food and drink production sector that is already strong in Shropshire (eg with Muller, Kerry Foods) and with universities and colleges in the subregion. Although there are no stark levels of deprivation across the county, there are pockets of deprivation in market towns and rural areas, particularly with issues of low pay and poor physical and digital access to services and facilities.

SC have seen a significant increase in people who had not accessed support before calling on the council for support or signposting to services. With a high claim rate for the over 50s, and an increasingly ageing population, SC efforts include developing business start-up programmes geared toward targeting support to this older cohort, who may bring different levels of skills and experiences to entrepreneurship than the age groups these programmes usually reach. There has been a high level of interest to date, and SC sees the programme as an opportunity to test new kinds of employment and skills support.

SC has also looked to different sources of funding to support their work including the Health Foundation’s Economies for Healthier Lives programme to reduce inequalities in the workforce, and support skills training for lower-paid workforce. Trying to broker Kickstart in a community of microbusinesses has been challenging and delivering national programmes in rural areas is difficult because of access and dispersed need. The team have had to be creative about where they look for funding and how they work with partners to ensure national programmes can delivered where people need them.


The learning

  • The COVID-19 economic task force has cemented SC’s relationships with its partners, bringing them together in one space at the same time. This has had knock-on collaborative effects, helping strengthen relationships between partners. So far, the task force has worked with the DWP to ensure delivery hubs are where they need to be.
  • Investing in Shropshire’s economic growth strategy has been a positive process that has helped the council and its partners pause, take stock, and articulate the county’s offer more strongly.

In hindsight

  • COVID-19 has made the SC’s economic growth team reflect that, pre-pandemic, they may have been trying to “be all things for all people”, but this has been an opportunity to create a clearer focus and set of priorities, and maximise existing strengths including the individuality of its market towns.

The future

The council will use its updated economic strategy to develop stronger partnerships for coordination and collaboration, with initiatives owned not only by Shropshire Council but also by partners as well. The council want to focus on promoting Shropshire as a place to do business and bringing more people into the Shropshire economy.

Sectors in which Shropshire expects to support growth and upskilling of residents are Agri-tech, digital health, food and drink, digital and creative industries, and advanced manufacturing.

The team want to continue to build on the strengths of their work with SMEs and micro-business and support businesses that have grown such as online retailers and logistics, very much exemplifying organisation objectives, particularly around “focussing on outcomes for customers” and ”making decisions based on current data and intelligence”.

The overall focus for the council, in both the short term and the longer term, involves putting infrastructure and programme development in place to support evolving sectors as well as the business support and digital and physical infrastructure that needs to sit behind such initiatives. This will continue to be allied to climate change policy imperatives, grounded in robust evidence and data, and informed through ongoing engagement with partners and across communities.


Contact

Hayley Owen

Growth Programme Strategy Manager

[email protected]