Since March the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis has left few businesses untouched. The impact has been dramatic and devastating – but there are signs of resilience and optimism.
That is the clear message delivered by Lord Derby, the 19th Earl of Derby and President of Knowsley Chamber of Commerce, who believes businesses in the borough, and across the city region, may be feeling bruised and battered but are nevertheless ready and willing to rebuild the economy in 2021.
Identifying the challenges
“My worry is the huge impact that has been felt across all sectors,” Lord Derby said. “We have seen the problems faced by large businesses in Knowsley, such as Jaguar Land Rover and the effect the pandemic has had on car sales globally, and also the impact on our smallest businesses such as those in the beauty sector on our high streets.
“They have all had a terrible time since March. This is not about big or small but is very much sector-driven. And I think huge credit must go to Knowsley Chamber chief executive Lesley Martin-Wright and her team who have quickly identified the challenges and have reached out to businesses across Knowsley. It’s what any chamber worth its salt would do.
“It is obvious that many businesses have faced a near-impossible task to keep going. It became clear in March that we were facing an existential threat. It has been an incredibly difficult period both for individuals and for businesses. I feel deeply sad for those who have taken the risk to launch their own ventures.
“Liverpool city region has, for some years, been behind other areas of the country when it comes to business start-ups and entrepreneurship. We have persuaded people to take that plunge and I feel a deep sadness for those entrepreneurs who are struggling right now.”
Adapting to the crisis
Lord Derby became the 19th Earl in 1994. After serving four years as a commissioned officer in the Grenadier Guards, he entered the wealth management sector, working for Robert Fleming & Co. He is currently chairman of Stonehage Fleming Family & Partners Trustee Co.
Most of his time is invested in running the Knowsley Estate which is recognised as one of the most successful visitor economy and hospitality businesses in the Liverpool city region. It was the winner of the Culture and Tourism Business of the Year at the Merseyside Independent Business Awards in 2019.
It comprises Knowsley Safari Park, the largest paid-for tourist attraction in the city region with 600,000 visitors a year, awarded Large Visitor Attraction of the Year at the Liverpool City Region Tourism Awards this year, and Knowsley Hall (below) a stately home which, following its restoration, is now an established venue for private and corporate entertainment with a high quality catering operation.
And Lord Derby points out that his business, like many others, has faced huge challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. He explained: “The last event we held at Knowsley Hall was back in March. Apart from a picnic weekend organised by Boodles in the summer that has been about it.
“We don’t have any realistic expectations of being able to hold anything other than a small number of events, with restrictions, over the coming months. We host a lot of weddings, here, and it has been heart-breaking for many of the couples, some of whom have seen their dates changed four times.
“The safari park has presented a real challenge because we still have wild animals that need to be looked after. We have keepers who are very passionate about their animals but for other staff at the park we have found the furlough scheme really helpful.”
Reasons for optimism
Lord Derby acknowledges that it has not been all gloom across Knowsley. Given its excellent motorway connections, Knowsley has become a real growth area for the logistics, warehousing and distribution sector.
“Both food and online retailers have enjoyed a strong period of trading over the past few months,” he added. “There has been a big demand in this area for warehouses and industrial units and that is certainly one sector we can be optimistic about.”
And he says optimism will be a key commodity over the first few months of the New Year with the, albeit slow, rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines offering the tantalising prospect of a return to some sort of normality later in the year.
“Economists will talk about the different shaped recoveries we can hope for in 2021, but we don’t really know at this point,” said Lord Derby. “But we do need to be optimistic. People will still want to get out with their kids and seek out real human interactions.
“We cannot hide from the fact that we are in the midst of a very painful recession. However I do believe the Government genuinely wants us to bounce back and they are trying to give us the tools to do that. The furlough scheme and CBILS loans have proved to be invaluable for many businesses.
“Many of us will realise that we are stronger than we imagined. It is vitally important that we don’t talk ourselves down.”
Stronger together, better together
Lord Derby’s activities are not restricted to Knowsley and he plays an active role in the economic development of the city region, its six boroughs and 1.5m people. He is also president of Liverpool Chamber and is involved with the University of Liverpool, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society and Aintree Racecourse.
And he believes cross-borough co-operation will be critical to the success of the plan to spark a recovery across the city region. He said: “Co-operation between the six boroughs is absolutely vital. And it is also important that all our chambers of commerce work closely together.
“People who live in the city region don’t just stay in the one borough. Many people who live in Knowsley will work in Liverpool, and vice-versa. There is a supply chain across the six boroughs. We have seen how Greater Manchester has got itself ahead through co-operation and we have to do the same thing.
“We have great strengths that we can build on. The knowledge economy is one of the sectors that can help drive us forward. You only have to look at the work being done at all of our universities. Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram has made a lot of noise about broadband and the importance of the digital space. We have to be right behind him on that.”
Lord Derby is an enthusiastic proponent of the idea that Liverpool city region needs more devolved power if it is to fulfil its potential. He added: “I think there is an understanding that people at a local level are best placed to decide what the region needs and what the mechanisms are that we use to deliver that.
“My overall message is that we are where we are right now. We have to reorganise and reshape and be ready for maybe not the old normal, but certainly a new normal. As businesses, we have to believe there are customers out there and be positive. Above all, we have to remember that we are better and more powerful when we are together.”