Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Greg Clark, the Business and Energy Secretary, recently announced that the Government will unveil an industrial strategy. This will “turbocharge sectors of the economy where the UK can lead the world, creating an environment in which excellence can thrive”, emulating the focus adopted by our successful Team GB for the Olympics.
He added that the Government would champion the talent of tomorrow, supporting the necessary skills and training for new and existing industries. He would help those sectors which already have a competitive edge, boosting investment in cities around the country.
This is welcome news, at a time when local authorities don’t always engage with business, whether multinational insurance companies, professional firms, retailers or start-ups, because they don’t know how to do it in a respectful and constructive way. Conferences aren’t the answer for busy people, especially when they turn into talking shops, with meaningless presentations on decisions which have already been made. There is a general failure to understand how the private sector operates because too few council employees have experience in it, and consequently don’t understand why their survival and development depends on profitability and meeting customer demand, as well as speed of decision-making.
Of course, as we’ve seen with recent investigations of BHS and Sports Direct, there are bad employers, but the majority are socially responsible, and ambitious. In the UK, the private sector is largely dominated by small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) founded and run by creative entrepreneurs, whether a bakery or digital start-up; those which thrive do so because they are focused, well managed and deliver good customer care. Local authorities could actually learn a lot from both large and small businesses, if they engaged constructively, perhaps seconding staff to specific organisations to expand their professional knowledge and skills, especially those responsible for major projects and budgets who may lack the project management disciplines which are embedded in the private sector, enabling them to meet deadlines and costs.
The best way to build these essential relationships is for senior councillors to ‘adopt’ specific businesses in their regions, meeting with their CEOs or a designated senior manager to explore ways of productive joint working – not least to promote the skills which so many businesses desperately need but are not available in local workforces. They have ideas for doing things differently, bringing national and international business experience, which could be translated to benefit local communities, if only someone was sufficiently interested to prompt a debate. All too often, they are ignored, so don’t bother.
High Streets would be more resilient if retailers were encouraged and supported to share space, and even develop shared insurance packages to reduce small independent business costs. As banks (and post offices) close their premises, why don’t they develop joint retail areas, perhaps with one of the coffee shops? It’s only by understanding how businesses operate that mutually beneficial, radical, options can be explored. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have done much to overcome this lack of engagement. Being led by business, they are a cooperative between the public and private sector, but they make decisions in weeks not years. In its five years, the New Anglia LEP, which covers Norfolk and Suffolk, secured £221 million for new roads and digital infrastructure, created over 350 new businesses and 4,400 new jobs. This would never have happened without the LEP’s strategic focus and knowledge of what makes a good business. It has now taken the lead in the bid for Devolution, with the ambition to grow the local economy to over £43 billion by 2020. But it doesn’t stop there.
Unfortunately, members of the public, including councillors, don’t realise that the majority of businesses, both large and small, support charities, whether through charitable foundations or by sponsoring events. Their generosity is vital to sustaining and developing much of what we so often take for granted, yet may be ineligible for lottery or other funding streams, but without which society would suffer, hence the importance of regular engagement.
The recently deceased Duke of Westminster was a billionaire with a multitude of successful businesses, but he was also a dynamic charitable entrepreneur, devoting a lot of his energy to young people and his work with the Armed Services. In particular, none of the obituaries mentioned that he was the driving force behind the strategy to replace the outdated Headley Court, to create the Defence National Rehabilitation Centre, which will also ultimately be open to members of the public who suffer serious life-changing injuries. He not only raised nearly £200 million towards the £300 million cost, but put £50 million of his own money into purchasing the Stanford Hall Estate in Leicestershire where the development is progressing. Sadly, his premature death means that he will miss the opening of this vital new facility in early 2018.
The public sector should remember that he is not alone; personal generosity is behind investment in the Arts and Culture, medical research and fundraising to help individuals and communities. Every area has its well-heeled entrepreneurs, usually living modestly, with passion about some aspect of our daily lives, who can be tempted to contribute to specific projects, provided there is a sound business case. Building relationships with such people should, consequently, be a priority in order to capitalise on their goodwill and the opportunities it presents.