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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Chamber looks to bright future

AS part of a north west Chambers consortium we recently re-won the UKTI international trade contract for the next three years.

This contract outperformed targets last year and over the coming year the Chamber is looking forward to helping and encouraging even more of the county’s businesses to get into exporting. North west exports are up 17 per cent. Interest in exporting among the county’s businesses continues to grow – from very small food and drink producers through to larger specialist manufacturers – and not forgetting professional services and training businesses.

International trade training and events have proved particularly popular this last year and we’re planning a great programme for this year too – along with schemes such as Passport to Export for new exporters and Gateway to Global Growth for more experienced exporters, providing a mix of training, advice and funding.

As a Chamber we’re also part of the national partnership delivering UKTI inward investment support, working locally with Invest in Cumbria on delivery.

Since last June we’ve been delivering the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme across Cumbria and Lancashire. This is a DWP scheme through Jobcentre Plus that helps people who’ve been on Jobseekers’ Allowance for six months or more to start up in business. We’ve already helped more than 150 people into business, with many more due to start soon, and are one of the top performing contractors nationally.

This scheme includes volunteer mentors who work with individuals to advise and encourage them to start up. I’ve been doing some mentoring on this myself and find it really rewarding – particularly so when you see the businesses starting and being successful, and even more so because you know the people you’re working with are getting off benefits and earning money doing something they enjoy.

I’d encourage anyone who might be interested in getting involved as a mentor to contact me at the Chamber on 08452260040 or suzanne@cumbriachamber.co.uk for a chat about what’s involved. An hour a week isn’t much time to find and as you only work regularly with a client for up to eight weeks it’s not necessarily a long term commitment.

We’re also continuing to deliver start-up support more generally, offering a range of advice, training and support. As part of this we’re leading a countywide partnership which has bid for three-year ERDF funding to support more of this activity and we hope to be announcing the launch of that project very soon. The project will offer support to people looking to start in business (including social enterprises) and those in their first three years of trading. Delivery partners are CREA, Cumbria County Council, Furness Enterprise, WCDA and WISE.

Working jointly with our members we began last year offering training commercially. This is proving very popular with courses selling out quickly and we’ll be doing more of this over the coming year. The reason we work with our members is so as not to compete with them and it means that members reap the benefits of the Chamber’s promotional activities.

We continue to offer a range of events around the county, take a look at what’s on offer at www.cumbriachamber.co.uk.

We’ve just launched the Carlisle Breakfast Club – the first meeting on May 4, with speakers on tips for growth (from Alison Johnston of Dodd & Co), connecting with people (from Julie Bell and Andy Cullen of Julie Bell Consulting) and building the motivation to buy (from John Ranson of John Ranson Consulting/PACE International Consulting).

Sales through our Made in Cumbria website, www.madeincumbria.co.uk, and store continue to grow and we’ll continue to grow our hamper business – hampers are already being exported around the world. Membership is also continuing to grow and our tourist information centre is the best performing in the county.

The Chamber continues to play a key role in the LEP. This takes up a very significant element of our time and effort, plus not insignificant cost, but given the focus of Government we see this activity as vital for the county’s business economy.

Working on behalf of the LEP, Cumbria Chamber has been instrumental in winning a Rural Growth Networks pilot for Cumbria. Working with Cumbria County Council on behalf of the LEP we’re finalising arrangements with DEFRA. The precise amount of funding has yet to be confirmed but the project will bring millions of pounds in from DEFRA, with the potential to add very significantly to this through ERDF funding. This project will involve:

l A network of eleven rural growth hubs around the county supporting their local areas, acting as a focus for networking, training and development and business support and prioritised for Superfast Broadband, with outreach activities in surrounding areas

l Six key employment sites (which will also be growth hubs) around the county, providing immediate employment opportunities

l Overlying virtual networks supporting various strands of rural enterprise e.g. women-led business, food & drink, digital & creative, adventure capital/country sports, agribusiness/forestry and social enterprise

l Rural growth hub web portal and supporting services

l Various business support initiatives and pilots

In round two of the Regional Growth Fund we worked as part of the LEP to support bidders – and specifically as the Chamber worked closely with Pirelli on their successful bid which was great news for Carlisle and for Cumbria – and no mean feat given that Pirelli isn’t in an assisted area and is not an SME.

With round three of RGF now under way we’re talking with a number of businesses around the county about potential bids and hopefully there’ll be some successful bids in this round. As part of the LEP we’re also looking at a programme bid for the county and will support bidders again as we did in round two. Anyone looking for LEP support for their bid or interested in participating in a programme bid should contact me on info@cumbrialep.co.uk. For bidders seeking LEP support draft bids should be emailed to me by May 11. All bids are treated confidentially.

In our LEP activities we’ve also been working with Cumbria County Council to establish the Cumbria Infrastructure Fund (part of the national Growing Places initiative) which is aimed at unlocking housing and jobs in the county. Expressions of Interest for the first tranche of funding are in and assessment is under way.

Alongside this we’re engaged in very significant activities around European funding – working hard to ensure that we maximise the flow of funding into the county and the opportunities for Cumbrian businesses.

Another key LEP activity we’re currently engaged in is the expert groups project feeding into production of a strategy and action plan.

This has involved working with groups of businesses of different from the range of sectors and from around the county to identify and discuss barriers, issues and opportunities, as well as suggested actions.

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