The dual shock of Brexit and the pandemic has presented serious challenges for local authorities in the UK. In Kent and Medway, a region south east of London, economic developers have sought to dampen the impact by boosting relations with its closest neighbours.

Gavin Cleary, the CEO of local development agency Locate in Kent, speaks with fDi about the benefits of forming partnerships and lessons learned in attracting logistics developments.

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Q: How have Covid-19 and Brexit impacted Kent and Medway?

A: It has clearly had a huge impact on both our economy and society, and it required a significant mobilisation of the private sector, public sector and quasi-public sector to respond to the crisis.

We were relatively well-positioned in Kent and Medway because of our work linked to Brexit. Given our geographical position as the gateway to the rest of Europe, we have been thinking and working hard on responding to the challenges coming from Brexit.  This includes helping businesses that needed to have a UK location for operations such as sales, business development offices and logistics and distribution facilities. Lots of businesses, particularly in Western Europe, have needed a UK presence since Brexit. 

Q: How have you changed your economic development strategy in the face of these shocks?

A: We had a renewed focus on Western Europe and some of our closest neighbours. We have been working with our counterparts in Western France, the Netherlands and broader Benelux region, looking where we could foster some symbiotic relationships between regions.

For example, we entered into an agreement with Oost NL, the agency that covers the eastern part of the Netherlands, particularly focused on the food and drink sector. This is a real strength for Kent in terms of agriculture, horticulture and agritech. 

The eastern Netherlands is also very much a leader in the development of new ways of looking at food and drink. We looked at how we could foster relationships between businesses in Kent and businesses in the Netherlands, as well as academic institutions and research facilities. 

We have also sought to develop bilateral relationships with other regions to insulate ourselves from some of the broader geopolitical changes.

Q: Have bilateral relationships become more important in the uncertain Covid environment?

A: Fostering relationships with regions around the world where you have an affinity, similar sectors and big diaspora populations is important. We have been targeting Hong Kong inward investment and have a renewed focus on the Indian market, as there is a significant population of Indian origin in Kent.

For us, inward investment and trade are very much two sides of the same coin. We look at trading opportunities for our local businesses in those markets that we are targeting from an investment perspective. Blurring the lines between trade and investment has been really helpful for us.

Q: The logistics and distribution sector in Kent and Medway has grown by more than 60% since 2016. What is behind this?

A: We've seen significant growth in the past five years, which then really accelerated in the past 18 months. The main drivers were changes in retail behaviour and supply chains. 

Given the breakdown of global supply chains, whether it be through Covid-19 or the Suez canal last year, we are starting to see significant interest in reshoring activities to the UK. Bringing some of that product closer to the end user, whether that be business-to-business or business-to-consumer, is a trend driving the demand for logistics and distribution in Kent.

Connectivity and access to talent is critical in attracting these types of developments. In 2021, there are a whole range of job opportunities that come from a logistics distribution facility, such as highly skilled operations directors, planners and IT specialists. It is important to work closely with local planning authorities to show them that these are the kind of jobs that they want to attract to their region.

Gavin Cleary is the CEO of Locate in Kent, the inward investment agency for Kent and Medway.  

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