Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council is tackling the economic impacts of COVID-19 through a new Economic Renewal Action Plan, including a £2 million Prioritised Recovery Programme (PRP) of immediately deliverable action. The approach combines an evidence-based, strategy-led plan with practical action to tackle critical issues and gaps in support to accelerate recovery.
Barnsley is tackling the economic impacts of COVID-19 through a new Economic Renewal Action Plan, including a £2 million Prioritised Recovery Programme (PRP) of immediately deliverable action. The approach combines an evidence-based, strategy-led plan with practical action to tackle critical issues and gaps in support to accelerate recovery.
By early 2021, Barnsley had put in place a range of activity to respond to COVID-19 impacts, building on previous economic programmes, and integrating locally driven support with that from city-region or national level. The Economic Renewal Action Plan (ERAP) was conceived as a framework that would build on that foundation and support rapid and effective recovery for local people, employers and businesses by doing two things:
- Pulling together the range of new and existing action into a strategic framework, allowing links to be made between activity and any duplication or gaps to be identified.
- Establishing a £2 million PRP, jointly funded by the council and the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Combined Authority (SYMCA), to address those gaps and bolster recovery, focused on ‘immediately deliverable actions’ over 18 months.
The ERAP was created at pace with collaboration between officers across the council and member/leadership input. Following Cabinet sign-off it launched in March 2021. The ERAP sets out the context for action, evidence, and future aspirations, as well as existing and planned council and partner activities. The new £2 million recovery programme comprises of six new projects and builds on this foundation through a burst of investment across the themes of People, Place, and Employers and Business. That structure mirrors the Sheffield City Region Renewal Action Plan and brings benefits in terms of strategic alignment and fit with funding opportunities.
Governance has taken place through a monthly ERAP Steering Group that feeds into the local Business and Economy COVID-19 Recovery subgroup - which brings together senior council officers and partners such as Barnsley College, the Chamber of Commerce, DWP and SYMCA. This was supplemented by a cross-party scrutiny session in June 2021.
A wide variety of ongoing or previously planned action has been delivered since the ERAP’s launch. That includes action on youth employment, work with businesses, and major infrastructure projects such as the Glass Works mixed-use redevelopment in Barnsley town centre. On top of this, work began on the new £2 million PRP with initiation and mobilisation activity on its six new projects in 2021, and delivery is now ongoing.
A primary focus of the PRP is responding to the impact of COVID-19 on accelerating trends towards online shopping. Local independent retailers (often with no digital presence or processes) can access a £1,000 grant to buy kit or software to help establish or grow their trade online; backed by a Digital Studio for producing high-quality images for selling online. Beneficiaries report being “over the moon” with the service, buying equipment they could not otherwise afford and allowing them to make valuable business improvements, such as selling online. The grants are also boosting business confidence in the council and strengthening relationships that will bring long-term benefits. The project is well on track to meet its target of supporting 60 businesses.
Three other projects also support digitisation:
- installation of lockers in the town centre so people can ‘Click & Collect’ goods they have ordered online from local retailers via the ShopAppy app
- support for 60 businesses (including in hard-hit hospitality and visitor economy sectors) to receive e-commerce consultancy support
- a Retail Tech Accelerator bringing 13 global companies to Barnsley to deploy digital and technology solutions to solve challenges faced by the retail sector.
Recognising COVID-19’s impact on the cultural, visitor economy and third sectors, another project is enabling 60 businesses in the sector as well as Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) organisations to receive one-to-one coaching and deep dive support on issues specific to them (e.g. business planning, funding applications, marketing). The capacity building package includes thematic workshops and access to learning material that helps to build sustainability, recognising the need to build capacity and resilience in the sector and move away from direct grant support. There is also a focus on helping organisations to meet and network amongst each other as a route to peer support, learning and collaboration.
Beneficiaries have provided highly positive feedback about how the coaching is helping to tackle key organisational issues. For example, it is helping one VCS group to establish a strategic partnership to amplify the voice of migrants in decision making, and to develop a large, multi-partner bid to the Big Lottery – something that they had not done before but could be transformational. Their advisor “really grasped the issues and understood what small community groups go through and what they need in order to grow”. The workshops have helped explore their vision, develop a business plan and identify the skills they need to improve their services.
Finally, the Future Proofed Workforce project is supporting businesses to build a sustainable workforce and boost productivity including in new contexts of home/hybrid working. It aims to support 1,000 employees in 250 businesses by October 2022. Designed through engagement with businesses, the project will complete independent diagnostic business reviews, signpost businesses to support, and provide five specialist areas of workforce support including in Leadership and Management, Mental Health, and Workforce Mapping and Optimisation. It is particularly targeting SMEs who have not previously used public support, including traditional family businesses.
It is too early to quantify the ERAP’s full impact as projects and delivery are ongoing. However, benefits are already being seen. These include great feedback from the businesses and VCS organisations supported; new and enhanced relationships between the council and partners; new collaborations and empowerment and creativity within the council. Barnsley town centre is also seen to be bouncing back more successfully than many others, with footfall almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
Monthly progress on milestones and outputs for projects is being recorded against targets including jobs created and safeguarded and people and businesses supported. These will be assessed in a closure report later in 2022, which will also track progress on COVID-19 recovery outcomes for Barnsley.
How is the new approach being sustained?
Most of the Recovery Programme will be completed by March 2022, with just two projects continuing until the ERAP’s end-point of October 2022. Some existing actions will extend beyond that point.
In late 2022, a fuller assessment of the impact of the plan and its projects will inform whether resources are sought to repeat or roll out any new projects or approaches. Good practice and lessons will be applied in other programmes and proposals too (e.g. for UK Shared Prosperity Fund). In strategic terms, the plan will have acted as a stepping stone towards long term strategies/plans that will drive continued economic development. Those include Barnsley 2030 (the borough’s ambitious integrated strategy and Levelling Up Plan); a Place-based Investment Plan; and wider activity to support Inclusive Economy aspirations.
- There has been value in having a strategic document that pulls together and communicates wide ranging actions to help COVID-19 economic recovery. The robust evidence prepared for this has also been helpful in preparing other proposals.
- Cabinet sign-off has added weight to the ERAP and its programme of action, and the mix of partnership-based governance structures and internal accountabilities has worked well. Alongside a focus on delivery, key officers have been able to step back to consider the bigger picture and respond accordingly, supported by having an external review process.
- Dedicated programme management capacity from the outset has been essential in initiating and delivering activity within a tight timescale. Robust tracking of milestones, risks, spend and outputs supports delivery and informs decision making. However, recruiting project/programme managers can be difficult and cause delay – so planning for this early pays dividends.
- Co-design and partner engagement is vital but hard to do at pace and in a crisis. Achieving this in the future will be pivotal to achieving full and well-targeted benefits for businesses and communities.
- Designing local economic support programmes at a time when new national and city-region programmes are also emerging makes it hard to avoid overlaps. Barnsley has sought to align with these where possible and to proactively determine local priorities, so action is led by vision and not just funding. Building in flexibility has been invaluable, e.g. to shift focus from redundancy support to staff development and retention as the labour market context changed.
- The £2 million Recovery Programme has provided a valuable mechanism to focus resources on key opportunities to respond to economic impacts and quickly make a difference. Beneficiaries have valued the support received and are reporting benefits that would not have occurred otherwise. There is opportunity for the council to build on the new connections, momentum and positive reputational impacts created.
- Project leads have worked incredibly hard, under difficult circumstances, to deliver and make a difference, aided by having a good set of delivery partners and effective working relationships. Their commitment, perseverance and professionalism has been commended by partners and beneficiaries and is crucial to success.