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Norfolk business chief calls for action on labour shortages by Government

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The chief executive of Norfolk and Suffolk’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has called on the Government to do more to tackle the labour shortages which have thrown several British industries into chaos.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of the New Anglia LEP – which seeks to drive economic growth in Norfolk and Suffolk – told Norfolk County Council’s scrutiny committee last week there was “no magic bullet” to solve the shortages.

Mr Starkie said that while positive steps could be taken locally, the only authority empowered to meaningfully address the crisis was the government.

LEPs feature - Chris Starkie, MD of New Anglia LEP. (51707236)
LEPs feature - Chris Starkie, MD of New Anglia LEP. (51707236)

He told the meeting: “Really it is down to central government policy in terms of making more workers available and relaxing rules …

“It does require a national recognition that there is a problem, and I’m still not entirely convinced that those in Whitehall have quite realised the problem is as serious as it is – the permanent people there, as well as the elected folk.”

Adding to his comments on Monday, Mr Starkie said: “It’s very easy operating in Whitehall, sat in the M25, and not being out on the streets, not being able to talk to businesses face-to-face and so on.

“It’s hard, because you’re away from where these problems are actually happening – you’re getting it all second hand.

“Certainly, parts of Government have been thinking this is just a temporary, short-term problem that we’ll just sort of muddle through.

“What we’re saying is that these are part of longer-term trends that require longer-term solutions, plus some short-term support.”

Mr Starkie also suggested the government had underestimated the scale and cause of the problem.

“I think there was an impression in Whitehall that this was all because the economy was heating up quite rapidly after the lockdown, and it would sort of work its way out of the system,” he said.

“While there’s a degree of truth in that, and it’s also true that there are lorry driver shortages on the continent, they [the EU] seem to be managing it better than us somehow – so maybe the free movement of people might have something to do with it.”

Mr Starkie welcomed the Government’s plans to provide 10,500 temporary visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers from abroad, but suggested that more visas will need to be issued.

He said: “The situation on the ground is very clear – in the short to medium-term, our businesses need access to more workers.

“We would all agree that isn’t the long-term solution, but in the short-term, you cannot turn off the supply tap and expect there not to be economic consequences.”

The visa plans are, Mr Starkie said, “a start and a move in the right direction.”

He added that the other announced measures around skills funding and training were “just as important”.

More devolution to Norfolk and Suffolk, for example in deciding what courses should be provided at colleges in the region, would be a welcome further measure, he said.

Norfolk and Suffolk have contended with skills shortages for several years.

Mr Starkie said: “We’ve had, for a number of years, skills shortages in care … some in hospitality, certainly a shortage in logistics, and certainly in food processing and wider agriculture, because these are all industries which require lots of individuals and are probably slower to automate.”

Immigration had therefore been “really important” to Norfolk and Suffolk’s economic success, he said.

“One of the real benefits of free movement of people was that a pool of people has been available, particularly as the EU expanded eastwards… You switch off the tap and there are bound to be consequences.

“Those consequences, without a doubt, have been exacerbated by Covid, because not only is there less freedom of movement, because of employment reasons, but also for health reasons, people are less willing and less able to travel around.”

He said however there were some measures which could be carried out locally to address the crisis, such as reskilling programmes, as well as encouraging parents back into work and asking older workers to consider a career change, which are all focuses of the LEP.

In a statement announcing the 5,000 temporary visas for HGV drivers on Saturday, transport secretary Grant Schapps said: “This package of measures builds on the important work we have already done to ease this global crisis in the UK, and this government continues to do everything we can to help the haulage and food industries contend with the HGV driver shortage.”

On Sunday, environment secretary George Eustice said of the 5,500 temporary visas for poultry workers: “It is a top priority to ensure that there are enough workers across the country’s supply chains to make sure they remain strong and resilient.

“We have listened to concerns from the sector and we are acting to alleviate what is a very tight labour market.”

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