How Chesterfield can bounce back from Covid-19 and weather economic storms

This month’s round table, held remotely via zoom and organised by Destination Chesterfield in conjunction with the Derbyshire Times, brought together key figures from the town’s business community to discuss the state of the economy, how Chesterfield can bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic and navigate the new economic challenges.

By Anna Melton
Thursday, 31st March 2022, 1:21 pm
Updated Thursday, 31st March 2022, 1:23 pm

UK economic growth is expected to halve this year amid soaring inflation, major tax rises, and global shocks - including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The impact of the invasion and rising raw material costs are also projected to keep UK inflation higher for longer.

Despite global pressures, Chesterfield’s plans are very much rooted in growth as it continues to press ahead with major office developments and the regeneration and revitalisation of the town centre as it recovers from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The debate took place via video conference

Resilience, innovation and flexibility are at the heart of the £26 million Revitalising the Heart of Chesterfield plan, which aims to increase land value by 16%, create around 100 new jobs and increase shop occupancy rates to more than 90% from their already strong position.

Taking part in the debate were:

JM – Josh Marsh – Destination Chesterfield Coordinator (Chair)

EC – Emily Coy – Professional Business Coach, Business Doctors

CC-R – Craig Croft-Rayner – Financial Planner, Milestone Financial Planning

AM – Andrew McDaid – Director, Mitchells Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers

CH – Chris Hobson – Director of Policy, East Midlands Chamber of Commerce (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire)

HT-T – Henry Taylor-Toone – Vice Principal of Finance and Corporate Services, Chesterfield College

RW – Rob Woodhead – Director, BRM Solicitors

MG – Mark Gilman, Professor of Economics, University of Derby

MS – Matthew Southgate – Senior Economic Development Officer, Chesterfield Borough Council

How do you feel Chesterfield has bounced back from the difficulties brought from the pandemic?

MS - We have seen a strong bounce back from the lows of Covid lockdowns, but we are not quite back where we were at the start of the pandemic. Town centre retail vacancies are currently at 13% compared to 10% before pandemic but better than the current national rate of 14.5%).

AM – The town centre always seems busy when I walk through, which is very positive. It looks pretty buoyant at the minute.

MS - Covid hasn’t gone away so it is still possible that some consumers are still being cautious about returning to town centre.

EC – In terms of hospitality, it looks like people are back out meeting with friends and relatives again, catching up.

RW – I think Chesterfield has recovered better than Sheffield, especially looking at the footfall in the town centre. Some of the bars have queues to get in again and it feels like there is resilience there.

CH – I think the smaller units are doing quite well but some of the medium – large units are taking slightly longer to bounce back. There are some interesting developments going on around the town centre and it’s looking positive.

HT-T – From the college perspective, we’re definitely seeing student numbers recovering for next year. Where apprenticeships are concerned, however, maybe the economy is bouncing back a bit too hard. We’ve got vacancies that we’re finding really hard to fill. There seems to be too much capacity and not enough people at the minute.

How are the current skills shortages affecting Chesterfield’s recovery?

AM – Recruitment and staffing is the number one issue across every industry and business. The demand for staff puts pressure on businesses to attract and retain people.

RW – You can’t walk past a pub without seeing a sign that says, ‘staff required’.

CH – A lot of businesses are now looking at how they can invest in upskilling and training their current staff.

AM - Eight years ago we began employing apprentices and undergraduates and it’s really paying off for the business now. We try to recruit locally wherever possible.

CH - A lot of businesses are also having to bring their medium and long-term recruitment strategies forward.

MG – It’s crucial that businesses adapt. We’ve seen a lot of businesses being more flexible with their approach to recruitment in the last couple of months.

HT-T – The public sector has a lot of competition from the private sector. We can’t compete on salaries, so we really have had to think about how we recruit people and what benefits we offer. Following enforced working from home during the pandemic, people now expect flexibility. because of this we’re now looking at a hybrid model of working.

Has the pandemic helped Chesterfield’s economy become more resilient?

MS – Chesterfield has quite a large public health sector, so it showed a good amount of resilience to Covid. In terms of the bigger picture, however, Chesterfield’s resilience is not what it could be as we still fall behind in legacy industrial areas.

AM – Working with lots of businesses in different industries, I am amazed at how many of them have come out of the pandemic in a much better financial situation than when they went into it. The amount of government support was absolutely unbelievable.

EC – The fact the local economy is not overly reliant on tourism or one particular industry, makes us resilient. We’ve got a good mix of businesses and that will be a contributing factor to us moving forward out of the pandemic.

C-CR – The key to resilience is diversity. Having a mix of industries, companies and small and large businesses across the area helps us massively.

AM – Chesterfield punches far above its weight. Getting the Levelling Up funding for the town centre is amazing. We do really well for a town our size.

EC –Investment in the town centre is about making Chesterfield a destination where people will visit for an event or an experience, doing something rather than just using it as a place for a traditional weekly shop.

CC-R – We should be competing with the likes of Sheffield and Nottingham in terms of the Christmas markets, we’ve definitely got the space for it.

MG – Any town or city that can react strategically is going to better placed than those that don’t. A big part of that is helping the SME community to improve what they do. SMEs I talk to are hardworking 24/7 but not always the most productive. We need to help them improve productivity whilst providing the infrastructure for other businesses to grow around them.

CH – In the town centre, we have the Digital High Street fund which is helping businesses look at how they can make the most out of being online.

MG – I think with the digitalisation, it’s not just about the new ways we’re using technology for products and services but also for efficiency too. We can address a lot of productivity problems with technology.

HT-T – We’re preparing our students for a world where things need to be digital and green. We’re looking at how we can digitalise the teaching with new equipment and technology.

What needs to happen to drive forward those essential skills needed in the current economic climate?

MG – We’ve got to think about creating an environment and a skill base for new industries to move into the town. There’s a whole range of skills that should be aimed at businesses leaders; those skills that drive business growth such as adapting your mindset and developing strategies.

AM – The University of Derby offers Leadership and Management courses here in Chesterfield and that’s something I push with our clients who talk about succession planning and training their own team to take over. There’s support out there and it’s down to us all to spread the word.

EC – There’s a lot of support out there for businesses. They can go to a business, their accountant, D2N2, the Chamber, the list goes on. Maybe it’s about marketing those services better if business owners don’t know about all the things that are out there.

MS – Chesterfield Borough Council has Emily Williams and it’s her role to bring about that integration between employers and skills providers through things like Apprentice Town, the Employability and Skills Conference, Made in Chesterfield and so on.

CH – Creating more inclusive work environments, offering flexibility and different ways to get into work will help plug the skills gap. There are ex-offenders with talents and skills and that is an untapped market for skills for businesses.

AM – Many undergraduates come to us for a 12-month placement before finishing their degree and then joining us full-time. Being able to give these people the opportunity to see how business works and being hands on is a really interesting process for young people. It’s definitely a two-way benefit and, sometimes, it’s the young people that are teaching us.

CC-R – We’ve had some great experiences with taking people on straight from college and those that have just decided to change careers. We’re generally looking for soft skills and aren’t too caught up in their educational background as we’re a people business.

CH – As a Chamber, we’re developing a piece of work focusing on knowledge areas, skill areas and behaviour areas. It’s the behaviour areas that businesses have deemed to be the most important. The knowledge and skills areas that businesses see as important tends to be communication and IT skills.

How do you feel the current global and national events might impact of Chesterfield’s growth ambitions?

CC-R - Certainly the fear around rising energy costs is already starting to bite. However, it is a difficult balancing act from a government policy point of view to control inflation without going too far with interest rate rises and, therefore, causing a recession. How long the terrible conflict in the Ukraine lasts for will be key for short to medium term growth.

EC – I think our fate in Chesterfield will be a direct reflection of the national economy. It is almost certain that local businesses will feel the repercussions of the war in Ukraine via a rise in the cost of utilities. Perhaps this does give us an opportunity to redouble our efforts to invest in green technologies, to produce more green electricity and become less reliant on fossil fuels.

MS – The increasing cost of fuel and utilities costs will push up the overall inflation rate and this is really going to have an impact on consumer spending, particularly for lower income households. Because of this we’re likely to see less discretionary spend in the shops and hospitality sectors with a focus on essentials.

CC-R – During the last financial crisis in 2008/09, business occupancy rates in Chesterfield didn’t fall below 95%. That’s incredible when compared to other towns surrounding us. There’s something different about Chesterfield.

MS – The fundamentals for Chesterfield are there, the town has a good geographical position with the Peak District right on the doorstep. We’ve got a good quality of life offer with a relatively low cost.

CH – The resilience levels in Chesterfield are good and I think there’s an opportunity for the town to highlight its credentials that make it more competitive. The town won’t be immune to the wider external environment, but it has the ingredients to perform better than others.

RW – I’m optimistic about the growth, especially with the amount of new houses and office space currently being built in the area.