Kent companies still have plans to invest despite uncertainty created by Brexit

For a coin distributor, it is ironic that bosses at British Numismatic Treasury did not know the symbolism of their decision to move to Kent.

Opening an office in Ashford last month, the German-owned business, which makes commemorative money for the Royal Mint, became the 1,000th company to invest in the Garden of England with the help of Locate in Kent.

The agency, which tries to attract business to the county, has helped to create or protect more than 63,000 jobs since it launched in 1997.

Despite this success, Locate in Kent chief executive Paul Wookey is cautious, particularly as Theresa May prepares to trigger the process of leaving the EU by March.

This was before taking into account any effect of the election of Donald Trump in the US presidential race.

“It’s one of those things you have to try and be optimistic about,” he said.

“The trouble is everything is uncertain. The decision to leave the EU is something foreign companies are beginning to factor into their thinking.

“The geography will never change and we will always be only 20 miles away from mainland Europe.

“However, Brexit brings another set of conditions to their trading.

“For most companies it will create a period of uncertainty but it is a question of taking any changes in their stride.”

Despite the uncertainty, the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce quarterly economic survey shows there were more companies in the county planning to increase investment in kit in the third quarter of the year, up four points to 24%.

While the number planning to invest in training is up seven points to 25%, the number saying their plans have worsened increased six points to 17%.

Mr Wookey said: “Some companies have slowed down their decisions since the EU vote. Why wouldn’t they?

“There are real pros and cons around the whole issue. Things like exchange rates are helping them if they are trading so it might be a good time for them to invest.

“Kent can be more resilient because of the structure of its economy.

“Companies are still investing in the county as they are mainly SMEs and more agile than larger companies. They tend to be more focussed on the market they are serving and can make decisions more quickly.

“That is what makes Kent more resilient than other areas where they are reliant on large businesses.”

Not content with waiting for investment to come to the county, some sectors are actively looking to build relationships abroad.

Last month, the Boost4Health project was launched at business hub Discovery Park in Sandwich, home to more than 150 companies with over 2,500 employees.

It aims to link life-science companies with other firms in the sector in mainland Europe, and is being led by Kent County Council and BioGateway, an organisation set up last year to help firms reach out to the Continent.

Running until 2019, it will provide free support to help Kent firms in pharmaceuticals, bio-technology, medical technology and nutrition enter new markets.

BioGateway chief executive Imran Khan said: “It will potentially be one of the last EU-funded trade development projects that will run in Kent, but it has the potential to have a lasting impact, building relationships and opportunities that will go beyond Brexit.”

Discovery Park managing director Paul Barber said companies – and the business park itself – needed to seek out new opportunities and to be ready for what comes after Brexit.

He said: “For businesses to thrive as we head for the EU exit, they need to be positive about the future and think global.

“Since 2012, Discovery Park’s mission has been to increase the site’s outward focus.

“We have tried to attract science companies from around the globe, creating a new diverse and supportive community, built on partnership and collaboration.

“With an eye already focused overseas, it will help to ensure the site has the resilience to thrive in a post-Brexit world.”

Author: Chris Price, Kent Business