Innovation and business support - Babergh and Mid Suffolk

The district councils have put significant resource into supporting businesses in their market towns through the development of, and investment in, a virtual high street digital platform.


Context

Babergh and Mid Suffolk are two separate district councils based in the county of Suffolk, to the west and north of Ipswich but with a shared workforce and administration.

Although combined, the two districts are different in size with Mid-Suffolk comprised of three market towns and Babergh with two towns situated on the borders of Essex and Suffolk. Both districts have a mix of rural areas and towns, the challenges associated with more rural areas such as transport and connectivity and diverse economies.  Mid Suffolk has clusters of manufacturing, engineering, haulage and logistics and Babergh, retailing, manufacturing and tourism.

The two districts have two of the ten Space to Innovate Enterprise Zones in Suffolk, Gateway 14 (Mid Suffolk) which focuses on agri-tech, food and health, digital and media businesses and Eastern Gateway focused on logistics and distribution (Babergh).

Mid-Suffolk saw a 5 per cent decrease in its employment rate during Covid and both districts more than doubled their UC claimant rate, with the highest rates impacting on the 18-24 age ranges.

Furlough rates in both districts have been relatively static over the past year, Mid-Suffolk and Babergh rates were 14 and 15 per cent in January 2021 respectively. This suggests that there are likely to be impacts once furlough ends not least for people who are made redundant having been on furlough for a long period of time and have potentially become de-skilled.


The team

The economic development team is relatively young and has grown to respond to the recovery needs of the two districts from four to ten members of staff, with a further expansion anticipated of fixed term and permanent roles to support the councils’ Recovery Strategy and Economy Strategy.  Although working in different economies, the team divides their time equally between the two districts focussed on improving the whole of the area.


The response

The district councils have put significant resource into supporting businesses in their market towns through the development of, and investment in, a virtual high street digital platform.

The virtual high street was developed with the Innovation Lab Stowmarket a new venture between Orbital Media and entrepreneurs, which initially was supported by seed funding from Mid Suffolk Council. It is run by a group of businesses who have come together (with support from the councils) to introduce further innovation to the area and provides hot desking space, networking opportunities and mentoring for smaller businesses who want to innovate and grow. One business that is involved in the lab is Queue Technology, an online media microbusiness. 

In response to the first national lockdown, Sudbury Town Council was looking at creating a website for independent traders as the markets and shops closed overnight.  Babergh District Council worked with Queue Technology and Sudbury Town Council to develop a platform for Sudbury businesses to advertise their services and products. The programme included investing in the start-up costs for the platform, support for reaching out to businesses to take up the service and providing them with the digital skills needed to take advantage of the opportunity. The Councils have now secured funding to extend the service to other towns in Babergh and Mid Suffolk.

https://virtualhighstreet.uk/sudbury

The licence for the platform is owned by the districts and they are working with the software developer, Queue Technology, to help it to become a self-sustaining service. The platform currently has a twelve-month free window for businesses to access the high street, and the councils are looking at ways to sustain the platform, potentially through membership fees. This will be in two ways:

  • Firstly, to introduce a premium service to enable businesses to have a high level of  promotion on the site.
  • Secondly, the platform will be expanded geographically to support the other market towns in Mid-Suffolk.

The virtual high street is a model which can be easily replicated and scaled across Suffolk and have wider application for market towns , regionally and nationally.  As a tool to increase digital skills and move small and independent traders online it has already had great success in the past four months.

  • Over 100 businesses have signed to the virtual high street, 70 per cent of whom had no previous online presence.
  • Queue technology has been enabled to grow their business and have taken on two additional staff members to meet demands for the service.
  • An independent trader of fruit and vegetables who has never traded online, has been enabled to grow their business by advertising vegetable boxes on the virtual high street, creating four jobs and investing in a vehicle to support their distribution.

The district councils are also investing in upskilling businesses to transact online, upload information and images, market their business, and better understand the impact of having an online business to their continued growth. They have now commissioned an organisation to deliver this on their behalf.

To support local towns and villages, the councils are launching a Buy Local, Shop Local campaign to ensure that residents understand the benefits of purchasing goods and services in the community.


Key learning points

  • They have been agile in their response, pulling together their different initiatives into providing solutions to support local economic recovery.
  • Building on this learning they developed their Innovate Local Initiative, by creating other spaces where innovation can flourish. They have secured funding to secure premises to provide hot desk and mentoring space in towns as well as pop-up innovation hubs to ensure businesses can access support where and when they need it.
  • They are in a strong position to grow and shape their Economy Team and have been able to attract high quality candidates who used to commute to London to work, but who are now looking to work locally. They have employed an Inward Investment lead and skills lead to the team.

In hindsight

The councils were responsible for distributing business grants over £31 million and £29 million (although these have increased since the case study interview), respectively. Had they known in advance just how large the task was going to be, they would have brought in more resources earlier to manage the grants process. The demand was much larger than expected and diverted staff from their day jobs of supporting businesses strategically and directly through the period. They have since brought in additional resources to manage this process. 


The future

The councils want to focus growth and recovery on innovation. This includes the roll-out of the virtual high street, the digital skills for business programme and development of innovation programmes in schools to inspire the next generation of the workforce, and more innovation hubs continue to pop up across the patch to support business innovation.


Contact

Fiona Duhamel

Assistant Director Economic Development and Regeneration

fiona.duhamel@baberghmidsuffolk.gov.uk