As part of the Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP), the Business and Local Economy Group have been looking at the way local businesses are evolving in our parish. In recent times there has been a large decline in the number of local jobs, especially in the farming sector and we have been looking at what opportunities we have to encourage and support growth to enable businesses to employ more local residents.
One of the desired outcomes of the NDP is both to contribute to the success of existing local businesses and, if possible, attract new enterprises, so that more local jobs become available. This can be achieved by increasing local job opportunities in both existing and new businesses in Benenden, and perhaps by encouraging some new businesses to start up with the help of small enterprise grants, home-starts, and maybe even attracting new residents into work-live units.
We have been canvassing local businesses, to try and understand what the advantages and disadvantages are of having a business in the parish. One of our aims was to maintain and improve the current level of business activity and thus encourage growth in the local economy. Ideally we would like to see more organic growth of businesses within the village which, in turn, will sustain village institutions like the shop and the pub and create more local jobs.
The Business and Local Economy Group sent out a survey to 85 local businesses, asking questions about issues important to them. Unsurprisingly, over 50% said they were experiencing problems with broadband connections and mobile phone signals. There was a strong desire for more information on recycling, and renewable energy was of interest to many of the businesses. However, one of the surprising points made was by businesses that wanted to expand; they had concerns about the lack of available larger premises in the parish.
This lack of new, well-designed business/office and small light industrial premises is of concern, especially for those successful home-starts that have established themselves here in Benenden and who want to expand into a local purpose built small business unit. We recognise this as being a potential challenge for the village and that we should look for opportunities to repurpose unused existing farm buildings and brownfield sites and convert them into workshops and business premises – as has happened at Apple Pie Farm and Turks Yard. These types of development are now encouraged in rural areas to keep localresidents working near to where they live.
To better understand the needs in the village we carried out another survey, this time requesting information from employees working in local businesses. It was carried out by those businesses employing more than seven people and identified 979 people working in the parish, of whom an unbelievable 878, or 90%, commute in from outside the parish – mostly driving alone in their car. We want to encourage businesses to reduce this number by employing more local people to work within existing businesses and therefore reducing the number of cars driving through the village.
Another opportunity we have explored is work-live units, which have been successful in many small and large communities. These allow residents who have a business need for something like a workshop or studio, to live under the same roof as their business and be part of a small community of like-minded business people, thus providing possible support and interaction. There are examples up and down the country where landowners have allocated land for these well designed small schemes (maybe six to ten units of varying size and configuration), to be built outside village centres but close to access roads with good provision for car parking and deliveries.
Living and working at home in the countryside can be what dreams are made of, but lack of collaboration and the feeling of isolation can be a challenge. To support freelancers, sole traders and individuals working from home, business hubs have been successful in locations similar to Benenden. These support business owners with good wi-fi communications, telephone answering services, basic book keeping, social media, copywriting and meeting rooms. To establish if there is a demand for such a hub, we would need to know how many individuals in the parish are likely to be active users. Please email us at email@example.com Business Hubas your subject if you think that you would be likely to regularly use a Benenden business hub.
We want to support those of you that have chosen to make Benenden your home, by giving residents the opportunity to work within this lovely parish and keep the commuting to the minimum. With the employers we already have (including those who are working from home), we have many opportunities to stop the daily commute and to encourage new business people into the parish without increasing local traffic problems. If some of our ideas are prove viable and are adopted we may find our roads have less commuting traffic, as we would hope to encourage local people to work for local companies and support a good, vibrant, local economy.
Steve Simmonds, Chair, Business and Local Economy Group