LAST Friday (May 6) I had the pleasure of joining the Business Growth Network (BGN) for their breakfast meeting at the Half Moon, Sheet; followed by a visit to the staff at Bordon’s Jobcentre Plus.

The BGN brings together local businesspeople every week to network, exchange ideas and learn about new opportunities.

It was a good discussion about business in East Hampshire and the economic outlook, locally and nationally.

These are difficult times for households, and therefore for businesses too. Firms are facing the double shock of the pandemic and the unstable international situation.

Covid restrictions have caused lost income and supply chain issues. The periods of lockdowns still cast a shadow and, unfortunately, will for some time.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unsettled energy markets and put pressure on specific supply chains.

We are, obviously, all concerned about inflation, and the cost of living.

All of these issues will require close attention and continued action in the time ahead.

We can take some comfort from the fact that, while there are significant challenges, there is also underlying strength in the economy.

Interest rates have risen, but do remain very low by historic standards; conditions for business investment are still favourable in many sectors.

I know many East Hampshire firms took the opportunity during the pandemic to rethink their businesses and innovate, particularly in the realm of e-commerce. Change does also disrupt, sometimes in hard ways. The shift to e-commerce has wider consequences – and that is seen also, sadly, in the announcement of another local bank branch closure. It also creates new businesses and growth.

We need to give our town centres continued attention to make sure they are vibrant centres of community.

Despite predictions that the pandemic could see unemployment reach levels similar to the 1980s, it peaked at 5.2 per cent, and has now dropped to 3.8 per cent.

In East Hampshire, the problem can be finding people for jobs, rather than the other way round.

Jobcentres, such as in Bordon, are not just there to help those seeking employment.

They can also help employers looking to hire.

The employer partnership work that jobcentres do can be really helpful for firms. They can help match applicants to jobs, sift applications, give advice and on occasion even facilitate interviews.

For young people, there are real opportunities locally for industrial placements, apprenticeships and technical education and training too.

While these are difficult times for households and firms alike, there is much to be welcomed and reasons for businesses to have confidence for the future.

Our area has so much going for it, including a brilliant diversity of businesses, from hospitality and retail to engineering firms, to agri-business and the growing wine sector, companies specialising in defence and science, and organisations providing specialist services and vital care like Treloar’s.

Initiatives like the Business Growth Network really help build a business community. They are a valuable asset.