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In conversation with Toby Bridges, Executive Chair, The NBT Group and Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP, about the importance of digital adoption in driving operational efficiency

How has the pace of digital adoption in the manufacturing sector impacted the work you do?

I chair The NBT Group, a supply chain management company that works closely with manufacturing businesses across the region and beyond. We’ve been working with our clients on automation for at least the last five years.

We’ve created and built a range of new technology that helps businesses become more operationally efficient, which in turn makes them more cost effective.

We’re aiming to move our clients, and suppliers, away from traditionally manual tasks, so they can focus on creating better jobs, which fits with the North East Strategic Economic Plan.

We enable our customers to do more with less, so they can take that saving and reinvest it into growing their business.

Why is investing in new digital tools and technology so important for the North East’s manufacturing sector?

For me, the goal is to drive operational efficiency. We need to position the North East as the most efficient location in the country to do business. That’s part of the reason why businesses continue to invest here.

Productivity is so important to the health of our economy. There are lots of places in the world where wages are cheaper, but they’re not as efficient and productive as the workforce in the North East. That has to continue, and automation will help us achieve that.

We need to encourage more companies to think about how they become 21st century, industry 4.0 businesses; otherwise they risk being left behind. That’s why the North East LEP has launched the Made Smarter Adoption North East programme, which aims to help manufacturing SMEs in the region adopt new digital technology, innovation and skills; helping drive growth in UK manufacturing.

Will the automation of manufacturing lead to job losses in the sector?

Whilst we will lose some jobs as manual tasks are replaced by technology, we will create far more ‘better’ jobs. It’s not easy to move from a traditional working model to a new, leaner way of doing things. To do that, businesses need to bring in new skills and talent.

The most important thing for the North East is to be ahead of the change that’s coming. We need to make sure we have the talent and expertise in the region to support businesses on this journey.

Understandably, many people focus on the importance of digital skills, but I think we need to invest in creative subjects too, like art and design. We need people that think outside the box. We can teach people how to code, but we shouldn’t underplay the power of the arts in helping manage change and encouraging new thinking.

What does the future hold for manufacturing? What will the sector look like in five or ten years time because of the move to advanced manufacturing?

I think basic manual tasks will become automated, but because of that, we’ll create a new skilled workforce to manage those systems.

It’s important to remember there are cultural challenges around automation too. It’s a difficult conversation to have sometimes but we can’t bury our heads in the ground – it’s coming.

That’s why the region’s focus on retraining and reskilling is so important, that two-way conversation between the educational establishments and industry on what is needed over the next 10-20 years. We need to support businesses and employees to invest in life-long learning so we continue to be prepared for and adapt to the changes digital technology will bring about in all our lives.

We need to create a positive message around digitisation and the benefits it will bring to jobs and the economy.

Toby Bridges is Executive Chair at The NBT Group and a Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP.

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Andrew Clark, Energy Lead at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, on the publication of the Green Jobs Taskforce report

In November 2020, government published its ambitious ten point plan for a green industrial revolution in the UK.

Focused on increasing ambition in emerging and growing sectors like offshore wind, low carbon hydrogen, and electrification, it cemented government’s aim to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic, support green jobs, and accelerate the UK’s path to net zero.

Announced as part of the ten point plan was the formation of a new Green Jobs Taskforce – made up of representatives from industry, trade unions, and the skills sector – which would set the direction of travel for the green jobs market.

On 15 July, the Green Jobs Taskforce published its first report to government, industry, and the skills sector, outlining the importance of investing in the UK workforce to ensure people develop the right skills to deliver the country’s net zero transition, and thrive in a green economy it creates.

The report is of particular relevance to the North East, where green jobs are poised to transform our economy. We are already one of the world’s leading destinations for offshore wind, and recent investments from Nissan and Britishvolt have put our region at the forefront of the electric vehicle market. Innovations in heat networks and other forms of low carbon heat – including mine energy – also position the North East to become the UK’s first low carbon heat cluster, which will see the region benefit greatly from the growth of the green economy.

So how do we plan to maximise on this unique opportunity and play a central role in helping the UK reach its net zero target by 2050? Working alongside partners in industry and academia, we’re mapping the current and future skills needs in the green economy to ensure sectors in the North East – particularly those with the biggest potential for growth – have access to the talent and expertise they need to scale.

As facilitator of the skills workstream for Energi Coast – North East England’s offshore wind cluster – the North East Local Enterprise Partnership is working with industry and the education sector to develop an action plan to meet the needs of the sector with demand-led provision. Central to this is the commitment to increase diversity and inclusion in the offshore wind industry, and the group is actively working with employers to review their current recruitment and retention processes to ensure opportunities are provided to all.

The Energi Coast skills group is also working on a series of case studies that will reflect the partnership approach adopted by the offshore wind industry, the education sector, and government, in ensuring green careers advice is available to people in all sectors and at every stage of the career journey; reinforcing the importance of reskilling and retraining in creating new green jobs.

The low carbon heat supply chain is another significant growth area for the region’s economy, and we’ve recently completed a piece of work to identify the opportunities that exist both now, and in the future, for supply chain businesses, and what this will mean for skills demands. Additionally, as outlined in our Recovery and Renewal Deal for the North East, we’re addressing the need for investment in skills and training around retrofitting by working with the North East and Yorkshire Local Energy Hub on a housing retrofit skills model.

The North East’s significant automotive cluster and hub of activity in the battery and electric vehicles sectors means it’s well placed as a UK centre to meet the global demand for electric vehicles, and help lead innovation in the sector. Nissan’s decision to open a new gigfactory battery plant at its site in Sunderland, and the news Britishvolt will open another gigfactory in Northumberland, demonstrates the industry’s level of confidence in the North East. To ensure we have the skills to meet the demand, we’re working with the North East Automotive Alliance to address skills development in electrification and electric vehicle batteries.

The North East LEP’s Skills team is working alongside the eight early adopter status T-Level providers in the region to help strengthen their links with the business community, ensuring the new vocational qualifications – which include a 45-day industry placement – meet the needs of employers, and help deliver the skills needed to meet the green jobs of the future.

The Skills team is also working with the North East Institute of Technology, local colleges, and major employers like Nissan and Esh Group, to highlight Higher Technical Qualifications in subjects like advanced manufacturing and other STEM topics, as skills in these areas will be central to delivering the green industrial revolution in the UK.

The green economies of the future offer a huge opportunity for the North East to grow its economy and create thousands of more and better jobs. But to do that, we need to invest in skills – both in our future workforce via schools, colleges and universities, but also in our workplaces, by re-training and re-skilling our existing workforce.

In doing so we’ll position the North East as a major destination for skills and talent in green jobs, helping attract more businesses to invest here, ensuring the North East is at the forefront of the UK’s green industrial revolution.

Read more about the North East LEP’s work to support and grow the North East energy sector.

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New government-backed business support programme aims to increase digital technology adoption in North East manufacturing sector

A new business support programme aimed at helping manufacturing SMEs in the North East increase digital technology adoption, innovation and skills has launched in the region.

Made Smarter Adoption North East connects manufacturing businesses to digital tools that can transform the way they work. The programme, which is backed by government, aims to drive growth in UK manufacturing by improving the development and adoption of emerging technologies across the sector.

Colin Bell, Business Growth Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The coronavirus pandemic saw an unprecedented pace of digital adoption across many areas of industry, which ultimately helped many businesses survive.

“Made Smarter Adoption North East is about supporting businesses in our manufacturing sector to embrace new technologies that help them become more efficient, more productive and more competitive. It connects companies with expert talent that can remove the barriers to digital adoption and ultimately make businesses more successful.

“The adoption of new digital solutions within manufacturing is completely transforming the sector and if businesses don’t adapt they risk being left behind. Made Smarter Adoption North East is the opportunity for manufacturing businesses in our region to access the help and support they need to embrace industry 4.0 and help lead economic growth in the North East.”

Made Smarter Adoption North East provides SMEs with fully-funded advice from specialist technology experts on the adoption of new digital technologies, innovations and skills. The three-stage process includes an initial one-to-one digital health check, helping businesses identify where improvements can be made. More intensive workshops look at the solutions available and how the technology works in practice. The final stage sees businesses work with an industrial digital technologies (IDT) specialist to move towards the implementation phase. Participating businesses will also be given support in identifying possible grant funding to help with the purchase of new technology and equipment.

Additional funding is provided through the programme for student and graduate placements so businesses can create digital interns to help integrate the new technology into the business. Employees are also invited to take part in digital upskilling and leadership development through Made Smarter Adoption North East’s leadership training programme, which is delivered by North East universities.

The wider Made Smarter programme was created following an industry-led review of how UK manufacturing industries can prosper through digital tools and innovation. This independent review was commissioned by UK Government and led by Professor Juergen Maier CBE, Co-Chair of Made Smarter UK.

Juergen Maier CBE said: “Made Smarter will be helping local manufacturing businesses to create new opportunities and innovate in the process.

“It’s a hugely exciting time and I believe this is truly a once in a generational opportunity to boost productivity and create the high value, highly paid jobs of the future.”

Made Smarter Adoption North East is open to all manufacturing SMEs in the North East LEP and Tees Valley Combined Authority areas.

Businesses in the North East LEP area (Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland) can sign up to take part in Made Smarter Adoption North East by visiting www.northeastgrowthhub.co.uk.

Businesses in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland) can sign up to take part in Made Smarter Adoption North East by visiting www.teesvalleybusiness.com/MadeSmarter.

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In conversation with Ammar Mirza CBE, Business Growth Board chair, about the North East LEP’s annual review and the work of the Business Growth team

It’s been an emotional and dramatic time for North East businesses, and there’s more change to come. As crucial pandemic funding and support from the government winds down, the North East LEP’s Business Growth team is prepared to help businesses and employees to adjust, rebound, and seize their opportunities to be entrepreneurial and brave.

We talked to the LEP’s Business Growth Board chair, Ammar Mirza CBE, about the future.

If the last year and a half has taught us anything, it’s the value of being able to adapt.

The early months of the pandemic were an emotional time. Talking to people faced with this storm, who were scared that they’d lost it all.

The team helped them plan a route ahead. We worked with people who had fallen through the cracks in support, and our partners all mucked in to support one another.

The time and effort they put in was nothing short of humbling. That’s why we do what we do, and why board members volunteer their time. Because we can see the difference we can all make together.

In 2020/21, we worked intensively with around 1,500 businesses of different sizes. Thanks to collaboration with the Business Growth Board and the Business Support Provider Network, we were able to support people starting a business, operating under COVID-19 restrictions, and even acting on new opportunities. We secured £4.4m to help North East businesses weather COVID-19. 

We’re starting to see more optimism in the business community. But there’s still some caution and hesitancy. And every shift affects people differently.

Some sectors have never grown as quickly as they have over the last two quarters. But others simply haven’t been able to. That includes leisure and hospitality, and businesses that rely on large-scale events.

Professional services aren’t back in the office at the same scale, and that’s changed the dynamic in our city and town centres. With no commute, we’ve seen significant increases in productivity. But – with the gap between home and office blurring – we need to be mindful of people’s wellbeing.

Money remains the biggest enabler, and the biggest barrier. Many people still remain on furlough. And as the financial support provided during the lockdowns begins to wind up, we’ll see a lot more businesses struggle.

We’ll continue to work with good companies, so that they have a base to build from. But we’re seeing a seismic shift in what’s done, who does what, and how it’s done. Some businesses in the North East and beyond may not survive, in their current form.

But that’s not where our support ends. We’re working to ensure there are initiatives and opportunities in place to help people re-skill and up-skill. But – in parallel with that – we want to help individuals boost their aspiration, and their ambition.

Our aim is to galvanise the entrepreneurial spirit of the North East. We want to help more people start businesses, and grow them. For example, we’re now part of the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme, which saw the launch for a project aimed at increasing and retaining entrepreneurial talent in the region. That will continue in 2021/22.

This is a time of change, but that also means there are so many opportunities out there. We can use this shift to bring in a new breed of entrepreneur, and we’ll do everything possible to help them achieve their dreams.

Ammar Mirza CBE is an award-winning entrepreneur and business founder, and Chair of the North East LEP’s Business Growth Board.

The North East LEP Annual Review 2020/21 is available to read here.

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Review of region’s economic progress and business support published

In a year when COVID-19 hit the global economy, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) has released an overview of its support for businesses and the region’s progress towards creating 100,000 more and better jobs. 

The North East LEP Annual Review for 2020/21 includes details of the North East COVID-19 Recovery and Renewal Deal; the North East LEP’s partnership with Crowdfunder UK to support small businesses; and the Challenge North East programme, which helped businesses to develop solutions to some of the most pressing issues the region is facing as a result of the pandemic.

Helen Golightly OBE, Chief Executive of the North East LEP, said: “Innate to our wonderful region is a sense that – whatever happens – we can and will go again and it is this drive and determination that has overwhelmingly dominated our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Good communication – listening and learning – has helped us and our partners work collaboratively for the good of the region. While there is still much to do, and our focus and resolve will continue, it is right to take stock of this, mark the moment and feel proud.”

During 2020/21, the North East LEP came together with North East Combined Authority, North of Tyne Combined Authority, CBI, Newcastle University on behalf of the region’s universities, the voluntary sector and trade unions to form the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group. In September 2020, the group published the Recovery and Renewal Deal for the North East which asks government for £2.8 billion investment to unlock half of the 100,000 more jobs required to support the North East to build back stronger after the pandemic.

The North East LEP Annual Review also details the success of the partnership with Crowdfunder UK which saw the public join forces with the North East LEP to safeguard 128 businesses and more than 400 jobs.

And the business community used its strengths in innovation to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19, with more than 60 SMEs putting forward ideas as part of Challenge North East. The programme is providing funding and support for businesses to develop solutions to problems including making in-person events safe again, and helping organisations which carry out work in people’s homes. £125,000 has now been awarded for seven of the most promising solutions to be brought to market.

Lucy Winskell OBE, Chair of the North East LEP, said: “Despite the challenges we have all faced, it’s clear that the region has pulled together to support each other and move towards recovery.

The team at the North East LEP, along with our many partners, has continued its work to help businesses and communities thrive in our region. From our work with schools and colleges, where we aim to make sure that every child and young person receives the best possible careers guidance, through to our programmes of support for the region’s industries of the future, I am heartened to see that we’re still making strong progress towards achieving our aim of bringing 100,000 more and better jobs to our region by 2024.”

The North East LEP Annual Review is available to read here.

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North East Local Enterprise Partnership reaction to ONS regional labour market statistics

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (North East LEP) Strategy and Policy Director, Richard Baker, has commented on today’s regional labour market statistics, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

“As we mark the anniversary of the first lockdown, today’s data release is a timely reminder of the changes which COVID-19 has meant for our labour market. It provides the latest official data which includes regional employment information for the three months up to and including January 2021 and also annual comparisons.

“In the most recent months, the headline data has been stable. The employment rate in the North East region, which includes the North East and Tees Valley LEP areas, remains the lowest in England at 71.3 per cent, 0.1 percentage points higher than in the last quarter but 0.4 percentage points down on a year ago.

“The region has the second highest unemployment rate (6.2 per cent of the economically active) and the highest proportion of working age people who are economically inactive (23.8 per cent). Almost 30,000 workers in the region have been made redundant during the past year.

“However, some of the recent impact of COVID-19 has been masked by an increase in the use of furlough in the region. Over 114,000 North East employments were furloughed at the end of January, more than double the total of three months earlier. Most furloughed workers continue to be classified as employed in the official statistics.

“The impact on different groups in our population has been different. Younger people have experienced particular challenges both in employment and training and there have also been different patterns in the impact for men and women in the past year. The number of unemployed women has increased by 14 per cent, while male unemployment is lower (by about 8 per cent). Almost 52 per cent of furloughed workers in the North East at the end of January were female.

“The progress we are seeing towards the lifting of lockdown restrictions offers hope for the thousands of businesses unable to trade. Support for these businesses remaining under restrictions needs to continue.

“The North East LEP will continue to work with government as we look to drive forward our economy and address some of the key challenges which COVID-19 has created in our region.”

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Investing in infrastructure key for North East’s economic recovery

By Darren Laybourn, Director and Regional Strategic Lead at Turner & Townsend, and North East LEP Business Growth Board member.

Manchester’s skyline is often used to illustrate how well the economy is performing in the North West. The sight of tower cranes and new buildings appearing across the city suggests a high level of confidence from inward investors, and a vibrant, growing business community.

The construction industry can be a good indicator of a region’s economic health, which is why there has been so much focus on infrastructure and building back better from the coronavirus pandemic.

During the first national lockdown, the construction sector was one of the few areas of industry able to fully continue working. Government further bolstered the sector by investing millions of pounds in supporting infrastructure projects across the UK, including here in the North East, through the Getting Building Fund.

A booming construction sector gives confidence to the business community, particularly startups and SMEs. It encourages businesses to continue to invest in staff, which is vital in helping retain skills and talent in the region.

The UK’s exit from the EU has brought about new labour regulations that if not managed correctly, may result in a shortage of skills in some areas of the country. At a time when we’re looking to recover quickly from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important we don’t develop a regional cold spot in terms of skills and labour.

The construction industry in the UK accounts for 10% of total UK employment – approximately three million jobs.* It also supports a wider ecosystem including delivery partners, supply chains – even coffee shops that serve workers on their lunch breaks. And it doesn’t stop there. The construction industry is the catalyst for creating new jobs in the longer term too, be that through new office spaces, business parks, enterprise zones, etc.

Cities like Manchester, and Leeds have gained the confidence of investors and the business community. That’s reflected in the amount of investment in new infrastructure projects across both destinations. If we’re going to compete with that we must maintain a good base of capital projects in the region and build back from the coronavirus pandemic.

There are already some fantastic examples of regeneration in North East England. Newcastle Helix has helped grow the region’s health and life science sector by creating an environment where academia and business can collaborate and drive forward innovations in data science, urban science and life science.

In Newcastle upon Tyne, work is beginning at pace on the transformation of East Pilgrim Street. The £100m project will introduce new offices, bars, restaurants, car parks, and housing in the city centre. The first phase of the project will see the creation of a new landmark, 14-storey, Grade A office building.

Across the river in Gateshead, the £290m NewcastleGateshead Quays regeneration scheme is expected to create around 2,000 new jobs in the North East and provide a £60m annual boost to the local economy.

Projects of this scale and ambition have increased confidence in the North East, resulting in more inward investment and more job creation, which maintains and, in some cases, grows those important skills.

The focus of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership on investment and infrastructure is at the heart of the region’s Strategic Economic Plan. Moving forward, we need to continue the successful delivery of funding programmes in the North East – including the Local Growth Fund. We also need to develop a regional project pipeline and support SMEs in the North East to bid for local work.

Earlier this year the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group – which comprises the North East LEP, CBI, North of Tyne and North East Combined Authorities, the region’s universities, with the support of industry – submitted its North East Recovery and Renewal Deal to government, asking for a £2.8bn investment to support the North East’s economic recovery from COVID-19.

Building infrastructure to lead transformation and encourage future investment is a key theme in the deal. It is this that will help the region bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic and support future growth and investment in the North East.

Darren Laybourn is Director and Regional Strategic Lead at Turner & Townsend, and a Business Growth Board member at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership

*(source: https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/UK_construction_industry)

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Universities support North East’s economic recovery: START UP at Newcastle University

Universities have a vital role to play in helping the North East economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The work being delivered by North East universities is supporting new and existing businesses to innovate and grow, and shaping and supporting a more sustainable and inclusive economy.

Durham University, Newcastle University, Northumbria University, University of Sunderland and Teesside University are all members of the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group, which was established by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to provide business resilience and ensure a collective response to the economic impact of COVID-19 on the North East economy.

Below is a case study about Newcastle University’s START UP offer, with a focus on the impact student and graduate businesses it supports are having within the region, and how they are responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

Newcastle University is ranked Top 5 in the UK for graduate entrepreneurship based on start-up turnover and investment raised. Based on average investment per start-up, the University is ranked Top 10 in the UK for scalable graduate start-ups and has generated the most investable graduate start-ups in the North East.

START UP is an equity-free support system for Newcastle University students and graduates up to three years and includes START UP Founderships, a pre-accelerator programme to ready the individual and their businesses for market entry, investment and success.

There are currently 203 START UP-supported businesses trading with a combined annual turnover of close to £60 million. Between them, they’ve raised over £19 million in external investment, won national and global awards and created 695 full-time equivalent jobs.

*All rankings and statistics from HE-BCI Survey 2018-19.

Over 70% of these businesses have remained in the North East, many of which recruit within the region, such as One Utility Bill, Nebula Labs and My Healthcare Recruit. Many the businesses are securing impressive investment figures.

In September 2020, Equiwatt raised over £300,000 to roll-out its innovative, energy-efficient app and create four new jobs in Newcastle. A month prior, Tea Ventures Ltd (NovelTea) welcomed 1,000 investors onboard as part of a crowdfund campaign that raised £577,000 to advance its plans to break into the US market, and in December, gained a further £1.4M investment for expansion and job creation.

Many of the START UP founders are persevering or finding ways to pivot despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis. Some have received grant support through Newcastle University’s partnership with Santander Universities UK to help them survive and thrive in 2020, and others are applying to a newly launched fund of £40,000.

“Last year with Santander Universities, we launched a Covid-19 Fund to help our START UP community adapt in response to the global crisis, supporting some businesses to scale in order to meet new demand. This new Fund is about stimulating and supporting the next wave of entrepreneurs and changemakers who will have a critical role to play in our economic and social recovery” said Claire Adamson, START UP Manager, Newcastle University. “It is also about making visible and celebrating the individuals joining the growing community of Newcastle University students and graduates who have created their own graduate jobs as well as employment opportunities for others”, she added.

Santander Universities has been in partnership with Newcastle University since 2009 and has provided close to £1.7M to the University, with £189k appointed to enterprise activities.

Matt Hutnell, Director, Santander Universities, says: “Santander is committed to supporting higher education as well as local communities across the UK. We’re proud of our partnership with Newcastle University and we’re delighted to support their new Start Up Fund which will enable many more budding entrepreneurs to thrive, particularly during this challenging time.”

To find out more about START UP, visit www.ncl.ac.uk.

Click here to read more about how universities in the region are playing a central role in supporting the region to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Click here to read more about the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group.

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North East Local Enterprise Partnership reaction to ONS regional labour market statistics

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (North East LEP) Strategy and Policy Director, Richard Baker, has commented on today’s regional labour market statistics, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

“Today’s figures continue to demonstrate the impact of COVID-19 on our economy with a continuing decrease in employment and a rise in the number of people claiming unemployment related benefits.

“The decision to extend the furlough scheme will protect many jobs for the future. However, it remains an uncertain time for businesses as a result of Covid controls and the need to continue to adapt to new processes following the Trade Deal with the European Union.

“It is essential that government continues to support the economy through the pandemic and invests to support the proposals in our COVID-19 Recovery Plan to enable us to drive forward our region’s recovery.

“The data released today covers the three-month period to November 2020. Employment continued to decrease during this time, both nationally and in the North East. The employment rate for the North East region, including the North East LEP and the Tees Valley LEP areas, was the lowest in England at 71.2 per cent. Both the unemployment rate and the number of working age people outside the labour market were much higher than they were between March and May 2020. The number of people being made redundant was at its highest level since 2009.

“In the North East LEP area, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits has increased by over 31,000 since March, with rates at 10 per cent in some areas. Employment in the region has fallen in most age groups, but the largest impact appears to have been on those aged under 25 and among 50 to 64-year-olds.

“These statistics include the November lockdown period but do not include the impact of the restrictions since Christmas.

“Strategic leadership and a strong partnership with government is more critical than ever – we will work closely with government to ensure that support for businesses is reflective of the need of our region.”