A year of change, challenge and opportunity lies ahead

In May this year, the British public will go to the polls to elect a new government. Even if the current coalition is returned to power, it will still inevitably lead to much change.

John Kersey, chair of the Lancashire branch of the Institute of Directors.

Regardless of who's in charge, we need a government that isn't afraid to stand up for hard working businesses; the job and wealth-creating companies that power our economy.

Tackling fuel poverty

Whatever colour of government we see after the election, I hope it recognises the need to do more to alleviate fuel poverty here in Lancashire. According to this report http://www.lep.co.uk/news/winter-deaths-concern-1-6988858 there were 850 avoidable winter deaths in Lancashire during 2012/13.

In June 2014 fuel poverty results were published that used the low income high costs method of calculation. The results gave Pendle (15.0%) as having the 18th worst rate in the country. Blackburn with Darwen was in 23rd place with 14.0%, whilst Blackpool and Burnley were 25th and 26th (13.5%). Another two Lancashire authorities were ranked in the top 50 for fuel poverty out of 326 authorities across England.

This needs to change. Central and local government, business and our communities must all come together to tackle fuel poverty. Not only will this help to avoid some of those excess winter casualties, but it will create employment opportunities for tradespeople that can install energy saving measures like cavity wall and loft insulation.

The time has come for Lancashire's shale gas revolution

Sticking with energy, we will soon see Lancashire County Council determine two shale gas planning applications submitted by Cuadrilla Resources.

It's been a painstaking process for all concerned. Firstly, Cuadrilla and international engineering consultants, Arup, compiled very detailed environmental impact assessments. Then, since June, the council's planning officers have been considering these and the planning applications whilst inviting the public to comment too.

It's been over 3 years since shale gas exploration came to an abrupt stop after two minor earth tremors were detected during fracking operations. Since then, a variety of expert groups, academics and respected organisations have all signalled that shale gas extraction can be undertaken safely in Britain.

So we need to get on with it. The economic prize is too big to ignore for our county: councils will be able to retain 100% of shale gas business rates to spend on frontline public services, and the Chancellor, George Osborne, has committed to developing a shale gas 'sovereign wealth fund'.

There's also a fantastic skills and supply chain opportunity for the people and businesses of Lancashire, especially if smaller companies can land a good proportion of the work - something I've commented on before here http://oesg.org.uk/guest-blog-supporting-shale-gas-smes-in-lancashire/

I just hope that Lancashire County Council is brave enough to make the right decision when the time comes, and to grant these two applications for temporary planning permission.

Let's make the most of our Enterprise Zone

Lancashire's Local Enterprise Partnership was singled out for criticism recently, with government ministers pointing out that progress in developing the county's Enterprise Zone at Warton and Salmesbury has been too slow.

I tend to agree, but slow doesn't mean no progress.

We already have some of the world's most advanced manufacturing businesses here in Lancashire, like BAE Systems and Westinghouse, and so attracting others to sit alongside them shouldn't be too difficult.

But I wonder if that's too narrow a focus. There are many other businesses, that could be complimentary to the advanced manufacturing sector, that we perhaps ought to be courting too, inviting them to invest in the Enterprise Zone so that we can really make the most of it.

Building on infrastructure success

The Lancashire LEP has been instrumental in winning £450 million in funding for a range of infrastructure projects across Lancashire, including Preston's City Deal that's ready seeing the road network improved in Penwortham and South West Preston.

We need to build on this success, make the money go as far as possible and extract maximum value for the businesses and citizens of Lancashire.

Better road networks mean enhanced connectivity, helping to get people and goods where they need to be more quickly.

An exciting programme of events

The IoD Lancashire committee has been busy developing an exciting programme of events that we'll be announcing as the year progresses.

Covering topics as diverse as energy and sustainability, through innovation to the benefits of Non-Executive Directors, our events are sure to be of interest to businesses across Lancashire.

I look forward to seeing you at some of them in this, my final year as chair of the IoD Lancashire committee. Whilst there are changes and challenges to be faced, I'm optimistic about the opportunities that 2015 will present for the people and businesses of Lancashire. Happy New Year.