As part of a series of investigations, Kent Business is looking at how the county’s coastal areas are faring as the UK navigates through a delicate economic recovery.
Chris Price examines Romney Marsh, where a grant scheme aimed at micro-businesses is aiming to fill the void left by the decline in the region’s once thriving nuclear industry.
At her home in Appledore on the Romney Marsh, Ellen Waldren dips her fountain pen in ink and gets to work.
The calligrapher realised her ambition of setting up her own business in April. Her self-titled online company sells bone china plates and mugs inscribed with the words of Shakespeare in letters drawn with Ellen’s own fair hand.
Ellen Waldren runs a caligraphy crockery business from her home in Appledore, Romney Marsh
Her two-man operation, in which her husband fires the words onto the crockery in a kiln, produces about 20 items a week.
“Small business is becoming big on the Marsh, although economically we are still quite small,” said Ellen, 60, who supplements her business with income from her long-time job as a psychotherapist.
“I’ll do my drawing board and spend a day writing, three days a week. There are lots of people with ideas like this on the Marsh.”
Ellen’s lifestyle is typical for the area. About 500 businesses on Romney Marsh employ fewer than five people – 73% of businesses overall.
It is Kent County Council’s perception that these micro-organisations are plugging the economic gap in the wake of the Marsh’s biggest employer leaving the area.
Dungeness A power station on the day it closed on New Year's Eve 2006
The decommissioning of the Dungeness A power station will come into full force over the next four to five years. Having ceased power production on New Year’s Eve in 2006, staff levels will be reduced from about 300 to 100 as maintenance of the radioactive core is implemented.
Consequently, the Marsh Million fund has been set up to support the area’s various emerging business operations. Magnox, the contractor responsible for the A power station, put up £500,000 after it was approached by KCC, which has allocated £400,000. Shepway District Council and Ashford Borough Council have contributed £50,000 each.
“We looked around and realised we should really do something to prove we did our job in terms of limiting the impact of decommissioning,” said Magnox spokesman Saranne Postans.
“This is bigger than the jobs that go as a direct result of the power station winding up. We have got a lot of staff who stay in local hotels and spend money in New Romney and other areas.
“Where you have got a rural community, quite often a power station will be a significant employer and pay a good level of wages. Once it goes, you lose not only the wages but the spending power in the community too.
“The key for us was to get in there early and mitigate this way in advance so by the time we leave it won’t be such a big impact.”
“There are a number of small businesses that haven’t got the opportunity to expand because they haven’t got access to a smaller amount of money..." KCC's Jacqui Ward
Aimed at companies with less than 50 employees, the Marsh Million scheme will offer businesses 0% interest loans of between £2,500 and £10,000. Launched in July, nearly 40 companies had expressed an interest before the application process opened on Monday, September 23.
Larger firms looking to expand on the Marsh have another pot of money set up for them. The Expansion East Kent fund has been running for 18 months, offering £35 million worth of 0% loans to create 5,000 jobs in the area.
KCC’s regional growth fund manager Jacqui Ward said: “There are a number of small businesses that haven’t got the opportunity to expand because they haven’t got access to a smaller amount of money.
“Those companies can often go under the radar, but we know they are there. The Marsh Million is a way of helping them come forward but also having a better intelligence of the area.”
Despite setting up the fund, KCC still wants to see another power station built at Dungeness. At present, the employment situation on the Marsh is in a delicate state, with the Dungeness B station, owned by EDF, due to cease producing power in 2018.
Proposals for a Dungeness C were left in tatters after the government omitted it from its National Policy Statement of possible nuclear power sites in 2009, citing environmental reasons and fears of coastal erosion. Post-Fukushima, any hope of getting Dungeness back on the government’s nuclear agenda look small. That has not deterred KCC.
“Generations of people have worked in the nuclear industry,” said Cllr Mark Dance, who is responsible for economic development in the council’s cabinet.
“The Marsh was at its height 30 years ago. Then it really was nuclear, with second-generation workers at Dungeness and a vast percentage of people on the Marsh working there.
“Ultimately, we would like to see another power station on that site. It is crazy not to. We have rattled cages and done our best. In 2015 we will look at lobbying again. This is ongoing.”
But the economic outlook is not entirely as bleak as the region’s eerie landscape, described in Russell Thorndike’s Dr Syn novels.
Patricia and Spenser Rolfe, who run W&E Rolfe & Son in New Romney. Picture: Robert Berry
Lydd Airport was given the go-ahead for its £25m runway extension and new terminal in April, after an eight-year battle to win planning permission.
Approval of the plans was described as “a victory for common sense and for the people of Romney Marsh” by the airport’s executive manager, Hani Mutlaq, who added that priority for construction contracts would be given to local businesses where possible.
Work is due to begin early next year.
Shepway District Council offers discretionary rate relief to businesses that can demonstrate genuine growth and job creation. It also hopes to set up the New Romney Incubation Centre next year, an office space for start-up businesses.
Another 550 staff are employed at Dungeness B, which contributes about £30m to the local economy, with other major employers including the Marsh Academy, Haguelands and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.
Another well-known firm is W&E Rolfe and Son, a third-generation family hardware store that opened in New Romney High Street in 1955.
“It is challenging for any business to balance the books, whether you are large or small,” said office manager Patricia Rolfe.
“If you are offering something a little extra and more personal, then hopefully you will attract people to come down here.
"It is good Magnox, KCC and the councils are coming together to offer the Marsh Million opportunity. The Marsh is a major target needing regeneration and every little helps.
“If we can help the high street and help businesses in the area, that can only be for the benefit of everyone who lives here or comes to visit.”