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Mid and East Antrim Borough Council: Rapid response and recovery fuelled by innovation

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council reacted and responded rapidly to the needs of businesses as the coronavirus crisis took hold. Now in recovery mode, the focus is on innovation, investment and reskilling within key industries and expanding the tourism offering. Ulster Business speaks to its chief executive Anne Donaghy and Graham Whitehurst MBE – the man tasked with helping to rejuvenate the region’s manufacturing sector

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Graham Whitehurst MBE, chairman of Mid and East Antrim’s Manufacturing Task Force, Buta Atwal, chief executive of Wrightbus with Mid and East Antrim chief executive, Anne Donaghy

Graham Whitehurst MBE, chairman of Mid and East Antrim’s Manufacturing Task Force, Buta Atwal, chief executive of Wrightbus with Mid and East Antrim chief executive, Anne Donaghy

Graham Whitehurst MBE, chairman of Mid and East Antrim’s Manufacturing Task Force, Buta Atwal, chief executive of Wrightbus with Mid and East Antrim chief executive, Anne Donaghy

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is renowned as a heartland of manufacturing and in recent years has grown its burgeoning tourism sector. Now, more than ever, innovation is central to this region’s road to economic recovery.

When a crisis unlike anything else we’ve experienced first struck, Mid and East Antrim was proactive – developing an action plan and response mechanism to ensure businesses of all sizes were able to survive and adapt to the ever-changing and uncertain environment.

That rapid response has now ramped up to recovery, rebuilding and reskilling companies and workforces to ensure the region gets back to growth as soon as possible.

“For me the future, post-Covid, is one based around innovation,” Anne Donaghy, Mid and East Antrim, chief executive says. Mid and East Antrim is a region which boasts a rich manufacturing legacy, with firms such as bus builder Wrightbus – now headed by chief executive Buta Atwal – saved from collapse, and now at the forefront of electric and hydrogen vehicle production.

Having to deal with the sharp shock of the loss of former industry giants such as Michelin and JTI Gallaher in recent years means Mid and East Antrim is now better prepared to deal with another economic shock – the current Covid crisis.

“Our passion and our skills helps set us apart,” Anne says. “We have been through an economic shock before and survived.”

Alongside a central Manufacturing Taskforce, advisory and mentoring facilities, an online BuySupply portal and financial assistance, Mid and East Antrim is moving from immediate response to developing the region into a stronger economic force than pre-coronavirus.

“When it struck, we responded immediately,” Anne said. “We contacted our businesses to let them know the assistance we could give them, so communication and effective signposting was key”.

“It was about practical advice – from financial assistance to guidance on furlough. And it worked because we had a huge response and engagement through our telephone helpline and across our social media and website platforms. It told us that we were doing it right.”

While the pandemic continued, it was clear that action plans were needed to assist companies’ progress. Mid and East Antrim was already well ahead of the curve, thanks to its Manufacturing Taskforce and also BuySupplyNI – the online portal connecting local firms and suppliers together. And for the man helping shape the future of Mid and East Antrim’s manufacturing sector and legacy, Graham Whitehurst MBE, he is very much at home standing beside one the newest hydrogen buses emerging from Ballymena’s Wrightbus factory.

As the former head of Michelin here, and also the former operations director at the Ballymena bus-maker, Graham intrinsically understands the business landscape across the wider Mid and East Antrim region.

“The taskforce was created about 18 months ago on the back of the closure of Michelin and JTI Gallagher,” he said. “The main aims are to both create and sustain jobs in the area, and to build confidence in the manufacturing sector in Mid and East Antrim.

“Almost 50 companies now form an integral part of the taskforce – actively helping each other and this includes larger firms in the borough such as Ryobi and Caterpillar, alongside smaller companies and key stakeholders.” As well as a steering team which oversees strategic direction, the taskforce encompasses a number of sub groups examining a range of key areas including productivity, training and skills, R&D, and supply chain.

With additional investment, the original BuySupplyNI portal set up by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, was adapted to help companies and organisations secure key and crucial personal protection equipment (PPE) as the coronavirus crisis spread across Northern Ireland. There are now 500 companies using the Covid portal in addition to 120 companies registered on the original site to enable local sourcing of products and components for the manufacturing, construction and engineering sectors within Northern Ireland.

Mid and East Antrim initiated a series of webinars at the start of the crisis – bringing in experts within areas such as health and safety and risk assessment in order to help companies develop and modify their workplaces to deal with the changes required and get back to work safely.

“It was also about investigating the impact that Covid has had on each business, finding out are the skills there, and if not how can we upskill’’, Graham said.

 “We’ve had a really strong response and as a result we set up a series of webinars, alongside upskilling and reskilling systems to assist, in particular, those people who have been on furlough or been made redundant.”

The initial impact of Covid on the local economy was devastating, but as Government packages of support were put in place the next step focused on signposting companies to the financial assistance available including eligibility for Government loans – before moving on to rebuilding businesses, and now planning for the end of the furlough scheme in October.

“We put together a furlough-ending action plan,” Graham said. “The first and most important thing to highlight to companies from this is, ‘can you keep you activity levels up?’. If companies can get activity levels up then this can help prevent redundancies.”

He said “firms must look ahead, examining workforce requirements, upskilling employees and ensuring staff receive key training for potential redeployment elsewhere in the business”.

Mid and East Antrim’s future plans for support include a series of masterclasses over the coming months and beyond, examining a range of areas including how firms can be more productive, leaner and more efficient.

Tourism is a key strand in growing the economy. The Gobbins Cliff Path in Islandmagee is now seeing unprecedented demand by visitors, buoyed by a surge in domestic tourism amid wider travel restrictions, while Carrickfergus Castle has also now opened its doors to the public, once again.

“It’s a critical cog in our economic recovery plan,” Anne says. “It was important before but it’s even more critical now. There aren’t many locations like Mid and East Antrim that can boast a Norman castle that is still intact and the Gobbins – which is simply breathtaking.”

And for that recovery, Anne says innovation, investment and a focus on emerging and growing sectors, such as green and cleaner energy, will be central to Mid and East Antrim’s success.

The recovery is based around core skills and experience – Mid and East Antrim has a bedrock in manufacturing, a growing tourism offering, but also has companies who are diversifying to survive and flourish.

The area’s ambitious plans include; developing a multi-million pound next generation science park on the former St Patrick’s Barracks site in Ballymena, investing £12m in extending the Gobbins Cliff Path, a programme of investment to regenerate, reposition and rebrand the town of Carrickfergus placing it firmly on the map as an authentic heritage led tourism hub and the development of a £600m green energy park at the Kilroot power station.

“Mid and East Antrim is the heartland of manufacturing in Northern Ireland,” Anne said. “Around 20% of our workforce is within manufacturing and the sector accounts for around £1bn in sales every year.” That includes international giants of industry such as generator maker Caterpillar and car parts producer Ryobi, alongside burgeoning local success stories such as Moore Concrete in Ballymena.

“We are constantly innovating and have set our sights on becoming the hydrogen hub for the UK, based in Ballymena.

“Innovation in the energy sector is key with ambitious plans for a new energy park at Kilroot power station and strong diversification within our manufacturing base. Key to this is skills development and making sure that the people of Mid and East Antrim have the skills necessary to provide labour to new companies in the green industry and the skills, knowledge and support to enable diversification. Our plans include the establishment of a Northern Ireland Hydrogen Training Academy in Mid and East Antrim.

“We have been through an economic shock before, we had the highest drop in GVA in the UK, we moved on and put plans in place to work collaboratively and innovate. This partnership approach means we can continue to facilitate and support the growth of our companies and enhance the skills of our people. Our passion, flexibility to adapt and perseverance really does set us apart”.

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