Enterprise leaders have told a regeneration conference that the rural west has a major role to play in dragging the West Midlands from the economic downturn.
Companies in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire have been urged to take part in initiatives like the £16 million Rural Enterprise Centre Network, RE:think Energy and the Redundant Building Grant Scheme, which has created more than 135 jobs in the last year, to trade their way out of the recession.
The Rural Regeneration Zone (RRZ) Annual Conference in Ludlow on Friday also heard that community grant scheme Nexus will receive increased funding until March 2010.
This will mean an additional £100,000 will be available to help local projects that provide training opportunities, employment assistance and access to leisure, health and specialist outreach services.
The event, entitled Catalyst for Recovery, included addresses from senior figures from the RRZ, Advantage West Midlands (AWM), Business Link and the government’s rural advocate Dr Stuart Burgess.
RRZ chairman Peter Pawsey said: “Rural areas make up 30 per cent of the West Midlands’ population and contribute 36 per cent of the region’s GVA worth an estimated £21 billion per annum – so you can see we are punching above our weight, which is good news.
“We have secured notable achievements in all of our main areas; communities, environmental excellence, skills and a strong economy.
Mr Pawsey said the Enterprise Centre Network scheme, which has hubs in Shrewsbury and Hereford, has helped to set up more than 63 young businesses.
He said the Redundant Building Scheme, which offers up to 25 per cent of costs towards converting or refurbishing under-used buildings, has seen £600,000 spent on 20 projects, creating 135 new jobs.
Dr Burgess, chair of the Commission for Rural Communities, said he had been impressed by efforts to upskill in rural parts of the Midlands.
He said: “All the research we have at our disposal shows the biggest challenges facing rural areas is lack of training for people of all ages and a diminishing ability to access facilities, such as Post Offices, banks and community centres.
“From a skills point of view, I’m particularly impressed at the zone’s involvement in the flagship Royal National College for the Blind and its £3.5 million investment in the Hereford Learning Village, as the rationale behind the latter was to create courses that specifically benefited the needs of local employers with 800 so far taking part.”
About 200 delegates attended the conference and spoke to advisers on the issues facing them.
AWM chief executive Mick Laverty told attendees it was important for them to tap into funding through the Rural Development Programme for England and ensure that all investment delivers the maximum impact.
He said: “The RRZ has an excellent track record in delivering value for money and since its creation has assisted 1,700 businesses, created or safeguarded in excess of 1900 jobs, whilst securing more than £20 million private sector investment in the process.
“It has managed to galvanise unrivalled partnership working across Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.
“This, when combined with innovative solutions to local needs, will be absolutely crucial in helping the zone and the West Midlands emerge from the downturn in a position to exploit the opportunities that will undoubtedly arise.”