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Councils need private sector input to boost visitor economies

Sandra Matthews-Marsh
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The recent Local Government Association report, Local Solutions: Boosting the Local Economy, highlighted the visitor economy as one of the fastest growing sectors and a key part of economic growth and community development.

It emphasised the importance of continued investment by councils in the visitor economy, using devolution as an opportunity to improve infrastructure and facilities.

The visitor economy is an integral part of local authorities’ and their local partners’ place-making agenda, providing a strong focus on regeneration and economic development. The public realm and cultural facilities enjoyed by residents can be made significantly more sustainable through visitor income.

In Kent we have local government has invested in Margate, where both social and economic regeneration is a number-one priority. Like many seaside resorts, it suffered when the changing market lead to reduced investment and decline.

However, the opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, part funded by Kent CC, has sparked the regeneration of Margate’s old town, with more visitors and new businesses, and the reopening of the Dreamland amusement park.

As with all change, there was some initial resistance from residents, but they have seen the benefit through the creation of new jobs and public realm improvements. We would strongly argue that the visitor economy plays a significant role in place-making and building civic pride.

It has also made an impact on other investment decisions like that to increase the capacity of the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury by 1,200 seats and to take West End shows. This is a win-win situation for visitors and residents.

We recognise that local government is constantly challenged on how to spend it budgets. Destination management organisations are key to supporting and developing the visitor economy. DMOs bring together the disparate elements that support the visitor economy and the best of the new breed of DMOs are private sector-led with strong public sector input.

Therefore, a step-change is required. Funding must be worked harder, with greater emphasis on partnership working and match funding. This has been a critical element in the allocation of Visit Britain’s recent Discover England Fund as well as Arts Council, England and Heritage Lottery funding.

This forward-thinking has helped us to become more entrepreneurial. Visit Kent’s successful model, which involves strong leadership from Kent CC, supported by district councils and with additional investment from the private sector, is being replicated in Hertfordshire, where we deliver tourism services and have a strong relationship with the local enterprise partnership, which has invested in Visit Herts.

DMOs can’t stand still. We have an integral role to play in economic growth and place-making. Only by being creative, entrepreneurial and truly commercial can this continue.

Sandra Mathews-Marsh, chief executive, Visit Kent

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