Business leaders from across the Central South gathered to hear more about the region’s economic recovery at the Business South Annual Conference.

Chancellor Rt. Hon Rishi Sunak got the event underway with a pre-recorded message that emphasised his strong links for the region having been born and brought up in Southampton.

He said the Central South region was in a positive position as the country continues to move forward following the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Green issues were also to the fore as the conference was taking place during the COP26 Climate talks in Glasgow. Business South supported the four LEPs ( Solent, Dorset, Enterprise M3 and Coast to Capital) to promote the government’s national initiative the  UK Business Climate Hub. Sustainability experts were on hand to offer advice to delegates about making their businesses net zero.

A commitment by businesses could make a real difference, says the government, affecting how customers think of them, how the community where they are based responds to them and bringing down energy bills. But ultimately it will be the planet that benefits most.

ABP Southampton Director, Alastair Welch, spoke about the major opportunities that would come with the Freeport status that encompasses the ports in Southampton and Portsmouth as well as the Waterside, Southampton Airport and Dunsbury Park.

“The real win for the Central South will be where organisations set up in the Freeport area and after initially paying no business rates, when they do start to pay them, the local authority will retain that payment and that can be used to invest in infrastructure projects for the region.

“There is an opportunity for a halo multiplier investment effect,” he said.

Keren Taylor, Senior People Director at Carnival UK gave a moving insight into the challenges the cruise industry faced when the pandemic hit with 7,830 crew members needing to be repatriated from Cunard and P&O ships.

While people in the Central South grew accustomed to seeing the so-called ghost ships along the Hampshire and Dorset coastline, Keren explained that far from being apparitions they were in reality manned by 120 people at a time and the welfare of the skeleton crew was paramount.

Looking ahead, she said she was cautiously optimistic and looked forward to a time when people would see a two centre holiday as a staycation in our region before joining a cruise.

Current staffing difficulties facing the hospitality industry were highlighted by Robin Hutson, known as the UK’s second most influential hotelier.

While he said there were no shortages of people wanting to take up apprenticeships in the sector, there was a real challenge finding experienced individuals.

He called for a government policy change to allow for people to come into this country on extended visas to fill the skills gap.

He was speaking as part of a panel discussion on future opportunities and challenges for the region.

Professor Mark Smith, Vice Chancellor at the University of Southampton, said it was incumbent upon people living in the Central South to shout about the positives of the region.

“While more people are referring to the region as the Central South, we need to ensure it has a higher profile and as yet it is still a work in progress,” he said.

Keynote speaker David Smith, Economics Editor for The Times, said the region was well placed for recovery and crucially it would not be disadvantaged by the government’s levelling up policy.

Commenting on current supply chain issues he said; “The current difficulties are a reflection of what happens when you turn lots of economies back on at the same moment.

“It is better to have high demand and low unemployment with supplies under pressure,” he said.

Business South Group CEO, Leigh-Sara Timberlake, said she was delighted so many business leaders had chosen to attend.

“Our annual conference has always been a major event in the business calendar so it was good to be able to get people back together in a safe way to look forward together – and having listened to our speakers, it seems we have a great deal to feel positive about,” she said.