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Business confidence in the East of England grew 20 points during March to 12%, the first time it has been a net positive reading since March 2020, according to the latest Business Barometer from Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking. The data has been released just a week after the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

Companies reported higher confidence in their own business prospects month-on-month, up 21 points at 16%. When taken alongside their optimism in the economy, which was up 19 points to 8%, this gives a headline confidence reading of 12%, the highest level in 12 months.

The Business Barometer questions 1,200 businesses monthly and provides early signals about UK economic trends both regionally and nationwide.

When it comes to jobs, a net balance of 5% of firms in the region expect to increase staff levels over the next year, up nine points on last month when 4% of firms had planned to reduce headcount.

The national picture

Overall UK business confidence rose for a second consecutive month in March. Firms’ confidence increased by 13 points to 15%, the highest reading since February 2020, before coronavirus was confirmed as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.

UK firms’ economic optimism also increased by 15 points to 17%, while confidence in their own business prospects jumped 10 points to 12%.

In fact, every UK region and nation reported an increase in overall confidence during March, with most reporting a double-digit rise month-on-month. The North East (1% to 26%), West Midlands (3% to 27%) and East of England (-8% to 12%) reported the largest increases. Scotland was the only area to remain in net negative territory despite an increase in confidence, giving a reading of -2%.

Dave Atkinson, regional director for the East of England at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, said: “The confidence levels recorded in our region this month are the highest seen for a year and, as we mark the first anniversary of lockdown, it’s encouraging to see firms being buoyed by the imminent reopening of the economy.

“Businesses in the East of England have proven their resilience throughout this crisis. We’ll continue to stand by their side, providing the guidance and support needed to help them emerge from the pandemic in as strong a position as possible.”

In the sectors, manufacturing and retail recorded the highest confidence levels, both at 25%, while services and construction rose to 11% and 12% respectively

Hann-Ju Ho, Senior Economist, Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, said: “It’s been a year since the first lockdown and the surge in confidence this month tells us firms are increasingly confident about economic recovery.

“The broadly positive outlook is driven by steady vaccine deployment, the roadmap out of lockdown and the extension of government support measures. It will be interesting to see whether the momentum for stronger business optimism is sustained in the months ahead.”