North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership chair Helen Simpson wants to stop local small businesses 'going over the edge' after the pandemic

Few in Yorkshire would have imagined a year ago the extent to which video conferencing services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams would come to dominate the working lives of those plying their trades from home during the pandemic.

For Helen Simpson, the new chair of the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), spending most of her life in the digital world meant there was less of an adjustment to be made as others struggled with the mute button.

“I probably find it less of a shock than most people because I’ve lived like this for 20 years,” she tells The Yorkshire Post from her home in Thirsk. “It’s really helpful that more of the people that I’m working with are now available digitally.”

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Helen Simpson, the new chair of the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership. Pic by James Hardisty

Formally taking over as chair this month at the organisation which brings together private and public sector investment to improve economic growth in England’s largest county, she is yet to meet most of her new colleagues in the flesh.

But with an end to lockdown approaching and a host of local business figures newly appointed to the LEP’s board, she describes the “feeling of a new phase, and a sort of surge of energy and growth around it all”.

Her new role, taking over from predecessor David Kerfoot, comes four years after returning to Yorkshire after three decades away.

Born in South Yorkshire, she recalls her grandfather teaching her to read from a copy of The Yorkshire Post on a Saturday as her parents enjoyed a lie-in.

Moving away to go to university, she ended up in London in search of work and married a Lancastrian.

“And so the original plan was we were going to be in London for four or five years and then come home. And the argument was on as to whose side of the Pennines it was going to be.

“But then we both got involved in busy careers and we have kids, and 30 years later I was still complaining that we hadn’t moved home.

“And so, about four years ago, we just finally got the opportunity to come home, so we moved back to Thirsk, it’ll be four years in May.”

Her varied career saw her rise to executive level at BT, where she led digital growth businesses and major deals, developed strategy and built commercial partnerships before leading the communication giant’s volunteering programme globally.

She currently chairs Broadacres Housing Association, a provider of social housing, extra care and specialist provision in North Yorkshire and previously held the same role at Trustees Unlimited, which works to improve charity governance.

She also serves as a trustee with St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity in London in their work with the homeless and vulnerably housed.

Her appointment to the LEP comes at a critical time for the county, whose vital hospitality and tourism sectors have been badly hit by the pandemic.

And the political situation remains uncertain, with a local government shake-up causing controversy and talks about to begin over a devolution deal that could bring £2.4bn and extra powers to North Yorkshire to realise its ambition of becoming the country’s first carbon negative economy.

The focus for the county’s political and business leaders is on forging a recovery that is ‘greener, fairer and stronger’.

On the former point, she believes the pandemic has helped shift the political scales so that the country is “getting nearer to tipping point” on the green agenda, ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in November in Glasgow.

Evidence of this can be found in Yorkshire and the Humber, where leaders from the public and private sector this week launched a climate commission designed to help the region tackle the most pressing problem facing policy-makers in the long-term.

“I get a real feeling in Westminster, that they are starting to shift themselves and actually really think about it,” Mrs Simpson says. “Whereas a couple of years back, it did still feel a bit ‘we’ve got to be seen to be talking about that, but we may or may not actually do anything very much’.”

She also describes her passion for a fair recovery from the pandemic in a county which boasts many areas of affluence but also pockets of deprivation on the coast and around Selby. “I think about folks in the region for whom life wasn’t fair even before the pandemic and the impact of Covid has very much been a poverty seeking disease,” she says.

“So the impact on the poorer bits of our region are significantly worse than for many people who have a comfort zone around them.

“One of the questions I’m asking is what does fairer look like, and what can we do, and how much is that about the way we come out of Covid, are there ways in which we can make sure that there are opportunities for those for whom it has been hardest.

“On ‘stronger’, we have some amazingly resilient businesses and their makeup of the economy regionally is very high percentages of small and medium-sized enterprises.

“And so for those businesses, it’s quite close to the wire about whether they survive, so what can we be doing between us, as if all the great and the good of North Yorkshire pull together.

“How can we help small businesses that are getting pretty near to the edge, not go over the edge, how can we help them turn round as quickly as possible?”

Explaining why she took on the role, she describes North Yorkshire as “fascinating” and hopes her experiences developing businesses and getting boards to work together collaboratively will make a useful contribution.

Her work with a public / private partnership charity in East London gave her insights into how to get businesses to engage with community development and the green agenda.

“And people in Yorkshire are usually at least up for a conversation and they like to call a spade a spade. So you can have some really good, honest conversations, whereas some conversations in the early stages in London might involve more dancing around the handbags.