A pop-up mall constructed of old shipping containers, which is home to various independent stores: Boxpark couldn’t be more in keeping with the character of east London’s trendy Shoreditch area if it tried, which was why the announcement this mecca for the young and hip was opening a second location in Croydon came as a surprise to many.
That was precisely the point, according to Jo Negrini, chief executive of the council. “We loaned money to Boxpark to come and set up in East Croydon station because we wanted to create a buzz around people saying: ‘Well, I didn’t expect to see that in Croydon’.”
Ms Negrini was speaking at a roundtable event that united senior figures from councils shortlisted in the Driving Growth category at this year’s LGC Awards. At the offices of award sponsor Grant Thornton, they discussed the enablers of their success.
John Anderson, assistant director for economic initiatives, Darlington BC
Dawn Baxendale, chief executive, Southampton City Council
Guy Clifton, head of local government advisory, Grant Thornton
Steve Cox, corporate director for environment and place, Thurrock BC
Helen Donnellan, inward investment director, Leicester City Council
Paul Dossett, head of local government, Grant Thornton
Denise Edghill, head of economic development and skills, Southampton City Council
Chloe Edwards, CIPFA trainee, Grant Thornton
Chris McEwan, portfolio holder for economy, Darlington BC
Shifa Mustafa, executive director of place, Croydon LBC
Jo Negrini, chief executive, Croydon LBC
Pam Smith, chief executive, Burnley BC
Tom Warburton, director of place, Newcastle City Council
Cornwall Council, Telford & Wrekin Council and Rochdale MBC were all also shortlisted for the award but were unable to attend the roundtable. Details of their projects are included below.
Croydon was far from the only council to point towards innovative partnerships with business. Indeed, it was a central theme of the winning entry, from Darlington BC. In 2012, members of the organisation sat down to contemplate their economic strategy.
Against the backdrop of the economic downturn, staff decided the best way to improve performance was to ask those trading in the area what was needed.
“We engaged 100 business to write the strategy for us,” explained John Anderson, the council’s assistant director for economic initiatives. “We had 10 inquiry groups, all chaired by a business lead, looking at various themes. That formed the economic strategy. It was written by businesses for businesses but facilitated by the council.”
Success has followed: an average 8.9% growth in gross value added (GVA) each year since the strategy was launched.
Croydon is going through its biggest transformation since the 1960s, and the result is that it is now the UK’s fastest growing economy. The council has set up its own jobs brokerage, Croydon Works, as well as its own affordable housing development, Brick by Brick. Other key priorities include infrastructure and culture. According to Shifa Mustafa, executive director of place, strong leadership has been key to the success of the work. “Things like growth aren’t short term; they take time and there are always difficulties and setbacks along the way. You really need that drive about the vision and the leadership, and from that you then get the officer structures, the capacity and the right culture to deal with those challenges as you go through it.”
Helen Donnellan, inward investment director at Leicester City Council, spoke of how a similar approach in her area has created thousands of new jobs and some £70m of inward investment. She explained how the area’s economic action plan “is very much based around public sector interventions supporting what the private sector needs”.
She continued: “The reason why we’ve been so successful is because everything we’ve done has been in partnership. So the private sector works with us, and we have an ambassadors group [of businesses] which mentor[s] each of our new inward investment inquiries – we get the private sector to support other businesses on our behalf.”
It underscored the idea that the most powerful champions of an area’s agenda and reputation often come from outside the council.
Newcastle City Council
Newcastle City Council knew it wanted to transform a 24-acre site in the middle of the city into a science park, capitalising on a long-term partnership with Newcastle University. It also knew it needed significant investment to realise its vision in full. “We needed about £350m of private investment,” recounted Tom Warburton, director of place. “So we’ve struck a deal with Legal & General Capital and its regeneration investment organisation fund.” The deal is the fund’s first with a public sector partner, and means the science centre will expand from 5,000 square metres to 70,000 square metres in four years.
Dawn Baxendale, chief executive of Southampton City Council, cited the example of Southampton making employment and skills plans compulsory for all major developments in the city, via section 106 planning agreements. “We’ve been doing that for 10 years; it’s had a massive impact, and our biggest advocates about it are the private sector; they’re the ones who shout about it. You can’t get better reputational change than that.”
Cornwall Council’s public protection service offers all manner of regulatory compliance advice to local businesses. Through a varied programme of support, including accreditation schemes and training services, it helps businesses succeed, generating income for them and the council alike.
The need to consider branding and reputation when driving growth was a frequent theme during the roundtable, and Guy Clifton, head of local government advisory at Grant Thornton and one of the award judges, said it had also been prominent in many entries to the category.
Southampton City Council (highly commended)
The council has a £3bn masterplan for the city of Southampton and Denise Edghill, head of economic development and skills, reported £2bn of it had already been secured, “either in construction or already built”. Asked whether there had been any barriers to success, Ms Edghill, in comments that resonated with many others around the table, spoke of funding or lack thereof. “Even though we’re innovative and we can make things happen and we can work well with partners, we do need government funding particularly for infrastructure and unlocking growth.”
In Burnley, a formal arrangement has been made to encourage the private sector to promote the area.
“We have 185 bondholders who pay into a programme, which supports our brand,” explained Pam Smith, chief executive of Burnley BC. “As a council in these straitened times, spending money on PR is not necessarily what politicians want you to do. However, selling your brand is critical to getting inward investment. So our bond holders advocate for Burnley.”
The results speak for themselves: 19 new businesses have relocated to Burnley in the past two years, bringing 2,416 jobs to the area.
Delivering such growth is fundamentally a matter of creating confidence, said Ms Negrini: “It’s all about confidence in you as an organisation and your capability as an organisation to be able to deliver and be in there for the long run.”
Darlington BC (award winner)
It was Darlington BC’s work to create an economic strategy with local businesses which saw it named winner of the Driving Growth category at this year’s LGC Awards. The strategy was the beginning of a strong partnership from which other initiatives flowed. “One example is ‘Darlington Cares’, where the business sector have taken the lead around social responsibility and volunteering,” explained John Anderson, assistant director for economic initiatives. “That had a real impact in terms of getting people in employment, and raising resilience in local communities, and a project called Foundation for Jobs, again led by the business sector with brokering between schools and private sector companies. That actually had a big impact in reducing the very high youth unemployment rates we had.”
“Foundation for Jobs and Darlington Cares are platforms for real operational partnerships: these aren’t phoney partnerships, these are about operational doing,” said Chris McEwan (Lab), portfolio holder for economy. “That can spawn a deeper lever of relationship between the public and private approach.”
Steve Cox, corporate director for environment and place at Thurrock BC, agreed, adding: “The other thing that breeds confidence is where the council is putting its money where its mouth is.”
In Thurrock, the council has invested £15m to attract a joint venture partner to redevelop a rundown industrial estate on the banks of the river Thames.
“De-risking investments is what we need to be doing as councils: creating an environment that gives confidence to investment,” he argued.
Leicester City Council
In the past four years, 5,160 new jobs and £70m of inward investment has been delivered in Leicester. Helen Donnellan, the council’s inward investment director, said the success was grounded in an economic action plan centred on partnership with the private sector. The plan was created by the city’s elected mayor, and she felt having that clear line of responsibility had also made a difference. “We’re in a very fortunate position in that we’ve got an elected city mayor, so actually that gives us the opportunity to make decisions quickly, and that gives confidence to the business community.”
For Ms Baxendale, confidence wasn’t the only key word needed in a discussion about driving growth: she felt innovation should have a place too. “We don’t talk about that enough. The private sector isn’t often as fleet of foot as we are, and we forget that sometimes,” she said.
It was a point echoed by Ms Donnellan: “I worked for many years in the private sector in marketing, and the public sector is woeful in that it never promotes its good deeds; it never talks about its good deeds.”
Rochdale MBC and the Rochdale Development Agency have worked with the private and public sectors to drive economic growth in the local area. There are now plans to bolster this activity through the Northern Gateway Development Zone, working closely with the combined authority and local enterprise partnership.
In drawing the roundtable to a close, discussion chair Paul Dossett, head of local government at Grant Thornton, said the event had presented a valuable opportunity to redress that lack of promotion.
“The reflections from today are what a great job local government does,” said Mr Dossett. “The country owes you thanks for all you do, and I think that needs to be recognised.”
A decade ago, Burnley BC and its business partners set out an ambitious plan to transform the area’s economic fortunes. “It was around having an entrepreneurial culture, targeting advanced manufacturing, the image of the borough and the branding, and the connectivity and the skills,” explained Pam Smith, the council’s chief executive. An integral part of the branding work is a bondholder scheme, through which organisations contribute financially or in kind to promoting the area. In the past two years, 19 businesses have relocated to the area with a growth of 2,416 jobs.
Expert comment: Importance of driving growth
The roundtable of councils shortlisted for the LGC Driving Growth award discussed key features of successfully driving growth, which were:
- Effective political leadership, drive and self-belief, including recognising the spectrum of benefits of growth such as reducing demand for local government services. This needs to have crossparty support, because growth is not short-term.
- Commitment of senior officer time to developing relationships within and outside the council, particularly with local business - listening to and not talking at them.
- The council’s role in “hiding the wiring” and acting as an enabler to growth, including de-risking investments for developers and inward investors.
- Courage, boldness and confidence in driving growth – developing a virtuous circle of confidence and advocacy from council staff, businesses and the community.
- Getting the image and branding right – of the council and of the place. The relationship with businesses was again felt particularly critical – they can act as advocates, whilst the council can draw on the national or international brand of business located within their borders. Branding was recognised as being multi-layered.
- Dynamism, agility and innovation – it was felt that public sector organisations could be as fleet of foot as the private sector.
- Effective partnerships with public, private and third sectors, and the local community, which allows insights and understanding of commonalities and differences.
The key challenges to driving growth were:
- Globalisation and the need to understand the changing market.
- Government funding and policy, diverting council attention and resource from the growth agenda, or funding not being available to support aspects of growth (for example LEP funding focusing on traditional infrastructure).
- Government policy is too silo driven – initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy don’t feel holistic.
- Over-calibrations of land values impacting on the amount of development and house building, housing supply being market led, and the lack of available affordable housing, limiting the size of the local working age population.
- Challenges in two-tier areas of co-ordinating statutory, further and higher education, to ensure people have the right skills to access the jobs being created by growth.
- Lack of commercial skills within the council or officers not understanding they are enablers and not regulators.
There was some debate about elected mayors being better able to take agile decisions. International businesses are often used to the mayoral governance model, and this familiarity can be used to affect decisions.