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Plymouth: 'We're not scared to invest to tackle market failure'

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Plymouth has big growth plans. The historic naval city, currently with a population of 264,000, is hoping to grow to 300,000 by 2032. When austerity hit, it opted not to cut back its resources for planning and economic development but to become more commercial.

Tracey Lee, Plymouth’s chief executive, says: “We see the commercial in the widest sense, helping us to fulfil the ambition of the council and the place.”

As well as making money, the council wants to pursue social good. One key example of this is CATERed, a co-operative catering firm giving children hot meals in school and tackling holiday hunger, serving 2.5 million meals each academic year. Both the council and the schools have a stake in improving the lives of the children being fed. Some 67 schools own 49% of the firm, with the council holding the rest. Any money made goes back into services.

Plymouth also jointly owns IT company Delt with Northern, Eastern & Western Clinical Commissioning Group, providing the council with a full range of IT services and contributing to health and care integration. The council also has an asset investment fund to contribute to regeneration.

For property, the council has developed significant internal expertise. “We are a council that had quite a large property portfolio anyway, so it was something that we had,” Ms Lee says.

Plymouth has been willing to invest in direct development of factory units, and engage in forward funding agreements, for instance in out of town retail.

“We’re not frightened to do that where we feel there is market failure in terms of the private sector not making the direct investments when the market is there,” Ms Lee says.

Despite this broad array of commercial activity, she says she doesn’t define the council as a “strongly commercial organisation”, but rather one that seeks the best way to achieve things. “I think being entrepreneurial is about your ability to see an opportunity, co-create the solution for that and actually be really clear about the risks that you carry for doing that,” she adds.

Read LGC and DWF’s full report: Commercialisation: Safeguarding the future of local public service delivery

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