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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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What we need to boost our Cumbrian businesses

Everyone knows that the public sector is shrinking and the private sector is going to have to grow to fill the gap it leaves. How it’s going to do that is a different question.

David Jackson photo
David Jackson

Speak to businesses and business organisations in Cumbria – whether large or small – and they will all offer different suggestions of improvements they believe will help them expand and provide more jobs.

Most appear to be consistent in thinking a major issue is transport – in whatever form.

It is certainly an issue for giftware firm Enesco, which has its headquarters in Carlisle and employs about 150 people in the city.

Carlisle has good rail links to London, Manchester and Glasgow – but for passengers and not for freight. For Enesco’s logistics director John Scott, a rail hub – where goods could be transported up here by train and offloaded in Carlisle – could be a major boost, not just for his business but for many others.

Many of Enesco’s products are made in China, and Mr Scott explains: “As a company we are bringing everything in through Southampton at the moment. We bring it by rail as far as Manchester and then we have to offload it and take it the rest of the way by road.

“A hub would allow us to get it all up to Carlisle by train, take it off here and put it directly on to a wagon.”

He argues that a hub would also bring new companies into the area, particularly online delivery businesses. And more companies opening here would help everyone.

“The key to growth for existing businesses is to attract new businesses,” he says. “If you were to bring a logistics company into the area, the pallet makers would benefit, the electricians would benefit, the landlords at the industrial estates would benefit, and there would be more employees spending their money in the pubs and shops. There are all kinds of spin-offs.

“Those firms don’t necessarily have to be located near the traditional bases like Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol or London. Carlisle should have the opportunity to get part of that market.”

Transport is also an issue for other firms. BSW Timber’s sawmill in Carlisle is the second biggest in the UK, providing wood for the fencing, building and pallet and packaging industries – and providing jobs for 162 local people.

The sawmill itself can operate from 6am to 10pm every day, but delivery lorries are only allowed to leave the site between 6am and 6pm, so as not to disturb people living nearby.

Mill manager Alistair Sommerville hopes the Northern Development Route, due to open in August, may allow the firm to grow. The quicker, more efficient route to the M6 may allow their lorries to operate later into the night, without thundering past people’s homes.

“When we first moved here in 1991 it was always the intention to improve access to the M6. It was one factor in choosing this site,” Mr Sommerville admits.

Once the road opens the firm may apply for permission to extend its lorries’ hours – which could let it expand further.

Another part of the local transport infrastructure is Carlisle Airport, owned by the Stobart Group. Stobart already owns Southend Airport, which offers a quick train route to east London, and Kate Willard of the company believes flights between Carlisle and Southend could prove extremely popular.

Businesspeople who have to attend meetings in London would welcome the opportunity to get there and back in a day, rather than endure the three and a half-hour train journey along the West Coast Main Line. Executives in the nuclear industry coming up from the capital could be regular users. And a flight could cost less than a first-class train ticket.

But Ms Willard also believes it could be used by tourists, particularly if Carlisle was marketed as a destination in its own right, and not just a base for visiting the Lake District or Hadrian’s Wall.

“The weekend city break market would prefer to fly rather than endure the arduous journey by train or car,” she argues. “Tourists who did want to visit the Lake District might find it easier to come north and drop down rather than come up via Windermere.”

Apart from anything else, an airport would be a status symbol for the area. “It’s a mark of confidence. It says Carlisle and Cumbria are open for business.”

The shops and guesthouses in Carlisle will certainly welcome extra customers from London, but if they are going to return or encourage their friends to visit then the city will have to look its best. David Jackson, commercial director of The Lanes, notes that is already happening – but he wants to see it go further.

“The completion of the Castle Street area is terrific,” he says. “It would be great to see this replicated throughout the city centre, replacing the existing wooden benches with granite blocks, improving the signage and removing some of the clutter in terms of phone boxes that are largely outdated and unused.

“We need to reinvest in the city centre to maintain the excellent facility we have and to freshen it up to 21st century standards.”

Janet Murray, The Lanes’ marketing manager, agrees that better signage would make the city more user-friendly for people unfamiliar with it.

“I sometimes think we miss one of our greatest assets in that we have both a cultural and shopping offer next to each other but not always obvious to the visitor,” she argues.

“The shopping is centralised and our museum, cathedral and castle are on its doorstep. How great it would be for everyone arriving by train, bus or car to be able to clearly see through signage the diversity of our offer.”

In Workington, David Fletcher, town centre manager, worries people have enough trouble just getting there.

“It’s only at Christmas that our car parks are really 100 per cent full,” he says. “What we really need is a better roads infrastructure.

“Carlisle is just off the M6 but we are so much more out on a limb. It’s another 30 miles to Workington and if you are trying to get here from Carlisle or Penrith you can easily get stuck behind a tractor or a caravan.

“The economy needs tractors and caravans – retail needs tourists. But in an ideal world there would be a dual carriageway from Carlisle or Penrith to Workington.”

Until we have an ideal world, Mr Fletcher believes the problem could be alleviated if west Cumbrian businesses co-operated better.

“Why have a half-empty lorry making a delivery to one place, when different businesses could be sharing it? It’s a matter of trying to get companies to work together on joint deliveries.”

Mr Fletcher agrees with Mr Jackson that a pleasant atmosphere within a town centre is another way of helping smaller businesses. “We introduced music in the town centre, and when you have plenty of places where shoppers can sit and have a cup of coffee and relax, it keeps them in the town for longer.

“It’s important to create a ‘feel-good’ factor – though that can take time to build up.”

The smaller businesses can also be helped, as he has argued before, if the supermarket giants are restricted. “A big Tesco hypermarket would just drown out the town centre. That’s how town centres die.”

Like Mr Sommerville, Mr Fletcher looks forward to the opening of the new Northern Development Route around Carlisle, which will make access to western Cumbria a little easier.

Tony Markley, the cabinet member for economic development on Cumbria County Council, points out that it’s not the only big infrastructure improvement in the pipeline. There’s also the £5.7 million regeneration at the port of Workington.

The facilities there include a 280 metre mobile crane installed in February, which can lift cargoes of up to 84 tonnes at a time. So even if the county cannot receive freight by train, it can now take large deliveries by sea.

“It is the only port of its kind between the Mersey and the Clyde,” Mr Markley says. “It will improve our links to Europe, so it will be a great development for the west coast and the whole of Cumbria.”

Another highway that could be improved here is the information superhighway. The council is bidding for European funding to extend broadband internet access throughout the county – and that, Mr Markley adds, could lure more companies in.

“If we get that it will be a really strong advantage for businesses that want to come here. Then we could compete with anybody.

“There’s a lot going on and I think circumstances are quite good for businesses in Cumbria. If we’ve got broadband, the sea terminal and the Northern Development Route, then why would businesses not invest here?”

But the advantages won’t bring any new investment or jobs unless people know about them, and Mr Sommeville believes Cumbria needs a higher profile.

“I don’t think you see enough promotion of Cumbria as somewhere to open a business,” he says. “It isn’t advertised as a whole.”

Visit London and you’ll see advertisements promoting Wales, Liverpool and Manchester and he asks: “Where do you see an advert promoting Carlisle? Only in Carlisle.

“We should be saying: ‘We are here, we are proud, come and see what we can offer.’”

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