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Building relationships with businesses - Essex County Council

Building on their strategy and growth work developed pre-pandemic, ECC quickly moved to focus on business recovery providing an opportunity to cultivate more in-depth relationships with business and support their districts.

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Essex County Council (ECC) is an upper-tier council in the East of England and within the South East LEP. Sitting within the non-metropolitan county are 12 district, borough and city councils (Basildon, Braintree, Brentwood, Castle Point, Chelmsford, Colchester, Epping Forest, Harlow, Maldon, Rochford, Tendring and Uttlesford). It shares borders with East London, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk and two unitary councils, Southend and Thurrock. It has transport links into London, the M11 corridor and major A roads connecting ports and airports into London and the South East.

The county is a mix of urban, rural and coastal and has relatively high levels of employment. It is entrepreneurial with one of the highest business start-up rates in the country yet alongside this has deprived areas and a productivity challenge in relation to the low level of skills of residents.  The focus for addressing this challenge is to invest in growth sectors through improved transport, housing, connectivity and access to business support and premises.

Prior to the announcement of the second lockdown, Essex had the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and ECC took the decision to place the county into Level 4 status. Recognising that this was going to hit the hospitality, leisure and tourism sector, ECC focused its recovery response on supporting businesses that were going to be most impacted.

The county has a current furlough rate of 16 per cent which is the same rate experienced in June 2020. The claimant rate has doubled to 5 per cent and there has been 3.5 per cent decline in youth employment.

The response

Building on their strategy and growth work developed pre-pandemic, ECC quickly moved to focus on business recovery providing an opportunity to cultivate more in-depth relationships with business and support their districts.

Hospitality and leisure are key sectors in the county and ECC were able to secure £4.4 million to develop a Business Adaptation Grant to help businesses manage the impact of COVID-19.  ECC worked closely with districts to streamline the process for hospitality businesses to be able to place chairs and tables onto the street for customers to support social distancing measures and to temporarily pedestrianise high streets to enable social distancing.

ECC is now working with districts to commission a study on the impact of COVID-19 on their 30 high streets and supporting their three Business Improvement Districts to manage the effect on their members.  

Tourism is also an important sector and in preparation for the ending of the current lockdown, ECC is preparing a range of campaigns. The Great Adventures Close to Home initiative was launched in June 2020 from the first lockdown to promote Essex as a tourist destination to Essex residents.  ECC is updating the Visit Essex website to include an online bookings function so that they can track occupancy and how the sector may bounce back once lockdown ends.

The council has also been focusing on supporting their districts access funding as well as working with SELEP to secure investment for capital development to support modernisation, physical and digital connectivity.  ECC is preparing to provide a competitive grant fund to businesses across the county, with a second round of funding to be delivered once the latest lockdown measures come to an end. Harlow and Colchester were successful in securing Town Deal funding back in October 2020 and Harlow and Tendring have been identified as priority councils for ‘Levelling Up’.

Key learning points

  • The emergency decision making processes that kicked in after the first lockdown allowed them to turn around decisions within days, processes which are still in place and it is hoped will be continued once the lockdown period is over.
  • COVID-19 has given a greater spotlight on economic development and commitment of the political leadership to invest in economic development activity both in terms of staff resources and funding.
  • It has also allowed for innovation and ability to test new ideas. For example, elected members have recently approved an additional £2 million for economic development activity which will enable the team to broaden its reach.

In hindsight

Although the council was quick to respond and ensure that funding was allocated quickly, timescales meant that it was difficult during the first wave of grants to align with county priorities. ECC did work closely with its districts, Southend and Thurrock through the Growth Hub to align grant making and decision making.

The future

The focus for the council will be working through their strategy for future growth sectors. They are currently working on a sector development strategy to assess where growth will come from, nationally and locally, where Essex has a leading edge, and what ECC can do to support businesses to diversify to support their own and the economy’s growth.

This will include a renewed effort to promote inward investment to support green jobs, including through housing developments which promote decarbonisation via local energy systems, hydrogen energy, and offshore wind. A further focus will be to ensure public transport links are improved and are responsive to residents’ changed and changing travel patterns. 


Andy Burgess - Head of Economic Growth [email protected]