Shoots of growth wane as latest lockdown suppresses business optimism

Tracy Mawson
X The Business Desk

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The latest Quarterly Economic Survey (QES) conducted by St Helens Chamber in the fourth quarter of 2020 shows the severe impact on employment reported by St Helens businesses.

While there were signs of recovery in the third quarter of 2020, this latest data suggests the rate of progress began to slow towards the end of the year.

Workforce reductions are shared by a third of respondents, with increases reduced to just three per cent, which is below quarter two’s five per cent. These drastic figures show that employment figures remain nowhere near a normal level.

No responding manufacturing firms increased their workforce in the last quarter of 2020, with a third saying they are likely to decrease it in the coming quarter.

The majority of services firms feel that their employment level is likely to remain constant, but 14% expect to increase their workforce and 14% expect to decrease. The majority of roles being recruited for are in the semi/unskilled and skilled manual/technical areas.

The number of firms now saying they are operating at full capacity has risen to 28%, from 24% in quarter three and 14% in quarter two.

The majority of St Helens firms continue to hold their own on the sales front, but more than a third report that both domestic and international sales, and future orders, have decreased again.

This is not a universal picture – 22% of respondents are reporting increases in this quarter and 18% say that future orders have increased.

Cashflow remains the most significant problem businesses are facing.

The uncertainty and drop in demand that they have experienced is unsurprisingly impacting on investment levels, with nearly half of all firms responding saying that their investment in plant, equipment and training will decrease over the next year.

While 2020 has caused a drastic fall in business overall, there is a minority of businesses increasing domestic and international sales, and recruiting locally.

The huge resilience levels of St Helens firms are shown in the fact that 54% of firms continue to plan for growth again over the next 12 months.

Tracy Mawson, St Helens Chamber chief executive, said: “This is the third Economic Survey the Chamber has conducted since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and these latest results highlight, in no uncertain terms, that local firms are still a long way from business as usual.

“Though the vaccine rollout provides real optimism, with a further sustained period of tougher lockdown restrictions to tackle the new variant of COVID-19, St Helens Chamber is clear that far more and broader national and local efforts to boost business and consumer confidence is needed to help firms create and retain jobs and underpin our local economy.”

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