Region’s businesses need to grasp the opportunities in this new landscape - Helen Simpson

There has been a significant milestone in recent weeks – the second anniversary of the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The pandemic has undoubtedly been an extremely difficult time for many, but also provides opportunities for us to reflect and learn about how we grow the York and North Yorkshire economy.

During lockdown, we all appreciated the advantages of what we could do digitally. It has enabled new ways of working and offered greater accessibility.

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Last summer, The Rural Commission called on Govern-ment and regulator Ofcom to “understand digital connectivity as a human right”, advocating an approach where the most remote citizens are connected first. In recent years great strides have been made to improve digital connectivity in the region, although some communities, particularly in rural areas, still need to see further progress.

Shoppers return to the shops after lockdown.

As we start to understand the digital possibilities for work, as well as for communities and families we can go further and faster in growing and developing skills for our region.

The shift to home or hybrid working has brought increased demand to local high streets as people sometimes work at home and sometimes in the office.

Throughout the pandemic, city centres have suffered the greatest damage across the UK, although data from the Centre for Cities shows that York has a good track record with better footfall than many other cities in the North.

We hear from York & North Yorkshire LEP stakeholders across the region that many of our market towns are doing well, in particular those with strong relationships generating loyalty in their surrounding villages.

The Office of National Statistics reported a 46.1 per cent increase in ecommerce values in 2020 when compared with 2019 – the highest annual growth reported since 2008. We have seen that rise reflected in increased online retailing for Yorkshire businesses.

Many of York and North Yorkshire’s small to medium-sized businesses have grasped this opportunity and adapted to the shifting economic landscape. The acceleration of online consumption and preferences for local, independent businesses, both present opportunities for retailers.

At the start of 2021, the Yorkshire Dales was the fifth highest location in the UK for people to book. The key for hospitality going forward will be to retain that market whilst also extending the season beyond the historic peaks during July to September. We saw some businesses radically diversify their offer during lockdowns, opening up new businesses such as online experiences.

It is good to see these new initiatives grow as well as historic businesses bouncing back, providing added resilience. The lure of the area is not just among visitors – people continuing to work remotely may wish to relocate to York and North Yorkshire. That presents an opportunity to attract a new, diverse talent base to the region.

Fresh challenges to the economy have also emerged from the war in Ukraine, while rising energy costs remain headline news. York and North Yorkshire must also contend with long-standing challenges, which include rising house prices and labour shortages, plus a need for better infrastructure and digital connectivity.

Greater investment can tackle these long-standing issues and help build upon the opportunities which have risen during the pandemic, helping York and North Yorkshire become a greener, fairer and stronger economy.

Helen Simpson is chairwoman of the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership