Cumbria’s army of SMEs are facing multiple challenges but help is at hand

Cumbria’s economy is dominated by small businesses.

Of the over 23,000 businesses registered to pay either VAT or PAYE in Cumbria, 98 per cent employ 50 or fewer people, with a further estimated 5,000 working below the PAYE or VAT threshold.

However, these vital bulwarks of the local and national economy are facing tough times driven by myriad factors, including the challenge of recruiting staff, soaring energy prices and the cost of living.

Suzanne Caldwell, managing director of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, says these are only a few of the difficulties they face, with yet more issues coming in the form of supply chain pressures, the need to trim budgets, mental health in the workplace and a general feeling of uncertainty about the future.

She says although organisations like the chamber are there to offer support, business owners are not always aware of it.

“When things are so challenging it’s easy to be so focussed on just trying to get through it that you miss or lose sight of the help and support that is out there,” she says.

However, despite the day-to-day pressures, she says it is important to be aware of the help including the chamber’s own Cumbria Business Growth Hub, which has a team of 35 business advisers covering a range of specialisms and expertise.

“We’re also really well connected to other business support activity available throughout the county so we can link businesses into the mix of support that’s right for them,” says Suzanne.

Eve Halliday, business growth manager at the chamber, says it also supports businesses by lobbying the Government for measures which help them.

“It’s our goal to make sure that the interests of Cumbrian businesses are represented,” says Eve.

“We encourage businesses to get involved and speak with us, whether that be through policy groups, networking or simply picking up the phone.”

Jo Lappin, chief executive of Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, says one of the major issues facing the county’s small businesses is a decline in productivity.

"Unfortunately, on the latest data available, productivity in Cumbria is moving backwards rather than forwards," says Jo.

"It's a national problem but in Cumbria we're not catching up, we're actually moving slightly behind. So there's a bigger challenge that we need to be looking at.”

Fourteen-year highs in inflation are also combining with hikes in interest rates, which are affecting many businesses which borrowed heavily during the pandemic.

"What businesses want the most of all is stability,” says Jo.

“We've had a very uncertain operating environment for years. We had Brexit, then we had Covid. Then we were coming out of Covid into the most challenging economic environment that businesses have seen for 40 years. So I think that there is a real desire for there to be a much more stable operating base, because businesses need stability to have the confidence to make investment decisions.”

One measure launched by the LEP at its AGM in September is its Innovating for Success Scheme to help businesses implement innovation and reduce their carbon footprints.

The £1m grant programme is offering funding of up to £50,000 to support innovation and £20,000 to help with carbon reduction.

Jo has faith that the difficulties will spur people to innovate and streamline their businesses so they come out more strongly from the other side of the crisis.

"I think the old adage ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ holds good in these times," says Jo.

"Businesses will be far more interested in energy efficiency and decarbonisation due to the cost drivers. The return on investment arguments have improved significantly.

"Businesses will be thinking really seriously about their operating model and how they do things differently to reduce costs. We're here to help them to do that.

"We need to identify significant transformatory opportunities in Cumbria that will create long-term quality employment, that will create supply chain opportunities, alongside delivering support, advice, and help to businesses.”




Innovating for Success - Newly launched £1m scheme from Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership offering grants of up to £50,000 to help businesses innovate and reduce their carbon footprint:

Cumbria LEP skills boot camps - Flexible courses of up to 16 weeks, giving people the opportunity to build up sector-specific skills and fast-track to an interview with a local employer:

Cumbria LEP business advisers - Free, one-on-one advice from a network of expert advisers:

Cumbria Business Growth Hub - Expert advice to help business. Business advisers covering various specialisms and areas of expertise.,

Cumbria Chamber of Commerce - Members can access benefits, including discounted training and networking, partner offers and discounts, free HR advisers, free 24-hour legal helpline, health and safety advisers, tax and VAT advisers.

Jobcentre Plus - Works with businesses to develop measures to meet business needs, as well as training and work experience

Inspira - Employability skills expert offering free professional careers advice and guidance for employers and employees

Made Smarter - Government backed initiative designed to help manufacturers adopt technology and digital innovation to improve productivity:

Cumbria Action for Sustainability - Support for businesses around sustainability and low carbon measures, including grants:

University of Cumbria - Offers a wide range of business support, including around low carbon and innovation:

Barclays Eagle Lab - Based at the Bus Station, in Whitehaven, Cumbria’s Barclays Eagle Lab offers a range of business support including access to expert mentoring, funding opportunities and rapid prototyping:

PHX Training free upskilling courses - PHX Training, which has centres in Barrow and Carlisle, is running a range of fully funded courses designed to help businesses improve the skills of their local workers, plug skills gaps and improve staff retention:



How can small businesses become more sustainable?

Becoming more sustainable has long been an ambition for many businesses on environmental grounds.

However, it has only become more pressing as they look to reduce energy usage to cut costs.

One business which is based on helping firms reduce their carbon emissions and become more sustainable is Green Small Business Ltd, based in Kendal.

Tim Maiden began Green Small Business as a side hustle to his day job working as a partner in an environmental consultancy.

However, it grew to the point where he began concentrating on it full time in January. The business is now expanding rapidly.

"Every business is different and they all have different impacts on the environment," he says. "So we talk to them about how they're currently managing those impacts and then put in place a policy and an action plan that captures that existing activity, but also has a whole series of new actions that the business can take to better manage those impacts.”

Tim provides certification for the processes, which are then renewed each year.

At the same time he helps businesses assess their own carbon footprint and runs training courses for owners and employees at Lancaster and Morecambe College. The courses are currently free to attend for any business in Cumbria and Lancashire.

"The reason I set up Green Small Business was because the mainstream approaches to certifying businesses from an environmental perspective are wholly unsuited to small businesses," he says.

"They're hugely onerous in terms of the bureaucracy and very expensive to put in place. I set up Green Small Business to fill that gap to provide accessible environmental support and certification for businesses of all sizes.”

He says an increased focus on sustainability from consumers and businesses has seen demand grow for firms to be clear about their carbon footprint and have some form of environmental accreditation.

“If you're supplying a bigger business, they might be putting requirements down through their suppliers around the environment or carbon. There are increasing drivers for small businesses to address these issues.”

The ever-increasing cost of energy has also been a catalyst for businesses looking to cut consumption, as well as a growing number of companies who are looking to gain B-Corp status, a designation granted to businesses which can demonstrate clear social and environmental benefits.

Actions businesses can take range from very direct measures such as installing more efficient lighting or heating systems to assessing their own supply chain to gauge the environmental impact of the businesses they work with.

Tim predominantly works with businesses online and has clients across the UK, as well as in Australia and Canada.

He says his work with businesses makes him feel more optimistic about society’s capability to tackle environmental challenges.

"On a day-to-day basis I work with businesses, many of whom have a real appetite for transformational change and for making a difference,” he says.

“I do genuinely think businesses can be a force for good in the world. Not all of them are by any means. But I think there's an increasing desire for businesses to play a positive role in responding to the environmental challenges that we face and it's crucial that they do."

Green Small Business is currently working with South Lakeland District Council to offer a half-price package of environmental support for businesses in the area.

People can email to request a discount code.

More information about the training courses at Lancaster & Morecambe College is available from