Chris Shirling-Rooke, chief executive of Mersey Maritime, reflects on the massive impact of COVID-19 and insists we can find a route back to growth and prosperity
There is no doubt that the last few months have seen unprecedented challenges presented and responded to in our country and across the world.
The start of 2020 saw many reasons for optimism. On Brexit, the political turmoil that had gripped the country since mid-2016 appeared to be coming to an end as the UK formally withdrew from the European Union and began to chart a stable path to finding its new place in the world.
Locally we celebrated all that is good about the maritime sector in the region with the biggest and most high profile Mersey Maritime Industry Awards to date. They followed the third UK-US Maritime Nations Forum in Liverpool which focused on one aspect of a outward looking, globally focused country in the years ahead.
COVID’s unprecedented impact
And then COVID-19 struck. The extent of the economic shock and beating that the economy took in March and April in particular, has been laid bare in graphic and stark detail.
We have seen unprecedented drops in output and a retraction in the capacity of the economy not seen since the greatest depressions of the last century and, in effect, two lost years of economic activity.
The latest economic analysis officially records that the UK is in recession and the first waves of substantial redundancies are beginning to be felt with unemployment rising rapidly, albeit the true extent not yet fully realised with the official statistics not necessarily reflecting the complete picture on the ground.
Doom and gloom you might say. However, this cannot and must not be the approach and mindset that we adopt. It is Mersey Maritime’s conviction that the fundamentals of the UK economy are sound, not least if you analyse the origins of the recession and consider how it is different to those which have gone before.
For this recession is in effect a state sanctioned and initiated one. As Martin Beck reminded us at our second joint Western Union Businesses Solutions, Mersey Maritime and Maritime UK Global Trade Outlook Series webinar in July.
He said: “There is nothing fundamentally wrong with many businesses. It was just that they had to temporarily shut down. Household finances have also held up quite well and the Government has injected a hell of a lot of money into the economy.”
Each of us has a responsibility to aid the economic recovery we need to see. To an extent this has already started to happen with retail sales on the rebound in strong terms and the boost this is already having beginning to be felt.
This feeds naturally into a sense of optimism that is so necessary after such a seismic shock. We must get back into a position where people are wholly confident to go out and spend again and support our move back to where we were before the pandemic.
The first phase of the economic response to COVID-19 was about safeguarding employment as far as possible in spite of the lockdown. The next phase, which is also a cause of optimism of itself, must seek to protect, create, support jobs and drive consumer confidence. It may take time for recovery to happen but it is a must and our sector has a crucial role to play.
Championing our sector
Mersey Maritime has a duty, indeed it is our very reason for existing, to champion, support and shout about all that is positive and possible within the maritime industry here in the Liverpool city region and the greater North West.
We have worked exceptionally hard to maintain the membership offer that we have as an organisation locally, from our largest to our smallest businesses and organisations, our presence has continued to be felt and we are proud to have done so.
From the maritime business survey work we led on across the country which did a deep dive into the impact of the pandemic on local businesses, to the follow up work via the Maritime UK Maritime Business Continuity Taskforce, our region has been represented when and where it mattered most.
But there remains more to be done locally too. Recently the government confirmed £900m of support through the new Getting Building Fund (GBF) for investment in local, shovel-ready infrastructure projects to stimulate jobs and support economic recovery across the country.
This investment is being targeted in areas facing the biggest economic challenges as a result of the pandemic. Individual allocations are awarded via Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) organisations around the nation for a wide-ranging package of projects that will deliver a much-needed boost to the local economy.
LEPs are expected to deliver the agreed projects but will have flexibility to deliver the greatest economic benefits to the area.
In total, 18 maritime projects were supported across England but regrettably such sector specific schemes were conspicuous by their absence on that list for Merseyside, apart from early infrastructure works related to Port Salford which will allow the acceleration of a rail terminal project in that vicinity.
An indirect output of this work is the accelerated delivery of commercial floorspace, jobs and the ability to link international markets through the Manchester Ship Canal which we all know is a key sustainable gateway to and from the Port of Liverpool.
We must do better than this for an industry that is worth on the very latest figures available some £4.2bn to the local economy and supports over 52,000 jobs and that’s even before you take into account the importance of logistics which is inextricably linked to the maritime sector.
Mersey Maritime will make it a priority in the months ahead, through whatever means it can, to ensure the industry on which our city and our region was built upon historically reaches its maximum potential for the future. And we have a significant opportunity for that to be the case on the immediate horizon.
The Government is embarking on its latest Comprehensive Spending Review which will be published in the autumn. Such reviews set out the Government’s spending plans for the course of a parliament and are a significant opportunity as departmental resource and capital budgets are set for a given period of time.
We believe, working with our partners at a national level, that there is a strong likelihood that maritime related priorities will be looked upon favourably. After all, as one of the most significant industries in the United Kingdom and the facilitator of 95% of all trade via seaborne means, we know we have a significant role to play in post COVID-19 economic recovery.
Encouragingly many of the themes being prioritised by the government are easily aligned to our priorities too such as:
- Maximising jobs and skills to drive economic growth.
- Levelling up economic opportunity across all nations and regions of the country by investing in infrastructure, innovation and people.
- Closing the gap with our competitors by spreading opportunity, maximising productivity and improving the value add of each hour worked.
- Making the UK a scientific superpower, including leading in the development of technologies that will support the government’s ambition to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
- Strengthening the UK’s place in the world.
It is not hard to see how these themes align with what we want to see for the maritime industry in the Liverpool city region. The Maritime Knowledge Hub project that we have long championed is all about jobs, skills and investment in people and innovation locally.
We also know we have some of the most productive workers in the country; leading advanced manufacturing expertise; expanding ports which have seen major investment and modernisation in recent years; innovation thought leadership companies who are heavily involved in existing clean maritime and energy projects – people working now to be the progressive and innovative drivers of the need to deal with the climate crisis we face through the green economy which can and should see job opportunities too.
And finally, as we were reminded earlier this year with the presence of HMS Prince of Wales in our historic and internationally significant city and riverfront, Liverpool is strategically placed to be THE country’s gateway for transatlantic trade as we work towards a comprehensive trade deal with our US allies.
Seize the day
The opportunities and possibilities are immense. Let’s seize this moment to chart a path through challenging economic realities, the problems that an economic retraction of unprecedented levels presents but also the chance to maximise new investment, new ideas and new innovations which have long been the hallmark of maritime dynamism and ability in our region.
Mersey Maritime is ready to do all it can with that opportunity and we call upon all our partners to help us be the maritime northern powerhouse coastal community that leads the way in the wider country too.