James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

While we are now only beginning to understand the wide-ranging impacts of Covid-19, it is clear already that a one size fits all approach to support will limit our ability to build back better.

A support offer that isn’t targeted risks alienating those leaders, workers, and learners who have the power to kickstart our recovery as well as those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and the ongoing social distancing measures.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough economy is incredibly diverse, from the rich agriculture of the Fens, to the technology and manufacturing powerhouses of Cambridge and Peterborough. Being a devolved authority, our local knowledge has allowed us to make data-driven interventions with a real tangible impact on businesses, job seekers, and young people looking to further their education and skills.

The first in a series of interventions made by the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority was a £2.3 million investment in a Covid-19 grant scheme for businesses across our region. The Covid-19 Capital and Micro Grant Schemes offered grants from £2,000 to £150,000 for new capital investment projects, helping companies to strengthen their capacity to survive and build back better. This was open for applications by early April and we were able to get money out to businesses quickly to allow them to make investments with confidence, helping to protecting our local economy.

We received grant bids for all sorts of projects including buying new kit, building new extensions, the updating of production lines, IT infrastructure, and upgrading logistics. It quickly became clear that £2.3 million was nowhere near enough, and we had to find additional funding to keep it going. To date we have paid out over £5 million in grants to over 170 businesses, protecting 500 jobs and creating a further 270 jobs.

Following the success of the grant schemes, we have been working with Metro Dynamics to really understand the impacts of the pandemic on the core sectors that make up our local economy. A report based on analysis conducted in August 2020 provides the Combined Authority with an up to date assessment of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough economy, with a focus on major sectors, business groups, and the labour market.

The report tells us that the economy in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough contracted by £1.39 billion in the second quarter and that this is less than the £3.7 billion fall in output first forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility in April 2020. Swift targeted interventions to support businesses, combined with the government’s national schemes, has enabled us to maintain this level of output. Had we adopted a one size fits all approach, the results could have been devastating. There is still a lot of uncertainty around how quickly individual sectors will recover and for now I am focused on listening to business leaders to see what support they need from the Combined Authority and how we can empower them to kickstart the economic recovery.

I am currently trying to visit at least two businesses per week to hear directly from people who are steering their enterprises through this crisis. This time for honest conversations is invaluable: it helps us to target resources where we know they will have the most impact. Supporting business leaders is just one part of our strategy. We have secured an additional £500,000 from the Department for Education to support young people struggling to find work in the wake of the pandemic.

The funding will be split between two schemes: sector-based work academies and high value courses. The sector-based work academies scheme is designed to help young people build confidence to improve their job prospects and enhance their CV. Sector-based work academies can last up to six weeks and have three main components: pre-employment training, a work experience placement, and a guaranteed job interview.

High value courses exist to support school and college leavers who are at higher risk of becoming not in education, employment, or training because of Covid-19. The one-year offer includes fully funded Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications to help young people gain skills to improve their future employment prospects. This investment shows just what we can deliver through our devolved Adult Education Budget and is another example of targeted support. Interventions like these make a real difference to school and college leavers in the short term and boost their employability in the long term.

We have other success stories such as the recent £3.16 million Local Grant Fund Combined Authority grant to Stainless Metal Craft to set up to provide training across a range of vocational subjects for between 80 and 130 apprentices per year. Opening in early 2022, this support shows local grant funding can play a huge part in really making a difference and changing lives for the better.

We don’t know what the next few months will bring, but we do know that the only way to build back better is to gain a real understanding of the challenges facing those individuals running a business, looking for work, or trying to further their education.

That is what we have done in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough: an approach that not only protects the hardest hit but that also encourages those with the potential to be the catalyst for building back better.

I am very proud that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is big enough to deliver but also local enough to care.