Local authorities are always aware of the changing needs of their regions and the crucial part they can play in attracting investment and jobs. Here, we look at the work of two of the most influential. First, David Fletcher, assistant director of Economic Development at Hampshire County Council sets out his vision of continuing success, in conversation with Mike Hughes.
David Fletcher was a key driver and facilitator of economic growth in Sheffield for a decade before he was brought to Hampshire in 2012, where he found a diverse £35bn economy with a high proportion of knowledge-based activity, many global corporate HQs, and of course, a very high quality of life in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Hampshire certainly has plenty to shout about, with four universities, several centres of academic excellence, and more than 20 colleges each with access to world-class research facilities and knowledge. “I have the perspective of a Northerner and when you come down to a place like this it is quite a different world because effectively the geography means it is an extension of the London economy,” he explains.
“It is one of the most successful areas of the UK, with an awful lot of significant big name European and UK headquarters in that M4 and M3 corridors, so the landscape is very different. What that means is that the challenge of supporting business success and prosperity is quite different – it is not just a case of throwing support at any business that might have any prospects of growth.
“What we decided was that we had to have something tailored for that particular economy and that we had to break the mould and couldn’t just be more of what we had in the past. We decided the Growth Hub would offer support and advice to any business that wanted to grow, but that we would specifically target the more in-depth interventions towards the businesses with high growth potential.
“The LEP has quite a few sectors that it focuses on, but I think we were more keen on the characteristics of the individual businesses. There is research showing that around 6% of businesses create more than 50% of the new jobs and we wanted to target that part of the market.”
That is easier said than done, but when you look at the stats, they are not always in high growth sectors, and are very rarely start-ups, more likely to have a pedigree of five or six years in terms of track record. But the thing that binds them all together is that they are all innovative and constantly looking at changing their products and services to keep pace with the market.
The area needs and deserves a unique service and David and his team are learning all the time about the diverse requirements of different sectors and what they can bring to the region. “At the Growth Hub we have tried to offer a service relevant to that particular cohort and what we have found is that they need a peer level quality of support from mentors or individuals who have already been running successful businesses, which is why we went down the route of acquiring our Growth Champions,” he says.
“We wanted a team of John Harvey Joneses that we could deploy in the marketplace and send them out to businesses without a fixed agenda, but to explore what is the art of the possible. There is a risk if you design a service around particular issues that they might be relevant to each operation.
“We have very much approached things in this different way and it is hard work, because Government always wants to know how many businesses you have supported and of course we are trying to focus on quality outcomes rather than just the big numbers.
“For us, it is about augmenting what is already successful rather than trying to fill some gaps. A lot of the sectors like digital tend to have a higher concentration in those corridors that lead you into London, but how do you capitalise on that because it is just a geographical benefit.
“So when we were thinking about who we might partner with to deliver the Growth Hub, we already had a very positive relationship with BE Group and continued that because we wanted a partner that could bring best practice from elsewhere. Our regional players in that area are absolutely critical, but we didn’t want to design something that would replicate or duplicate something that was already there.”
There is an argument that much of the available funding should be pushed North to help the economies that are really struggling, but what happens in areas like Enterprise M3 is that the technical innovation going on has a hugely positive knock-on effect to the rest of the UK economy. It’s a challenging case, but one that the councils know they need to keep pushing by standing their ground and underpinning their case with hard facts.
“There is a supply chain of SMEs working with some of the big financial sector companies, so you are almost positioning the region as one of the key regions that influences the competitiveness of the UK,” said David. “There is evidence that shows how investing in the South East gives you a bigger return than in other parts, but you actually have to invest in both for very different reasons.
“We are thriving, but can never afford to stand still because a lot of other parts of the world are thriving as well. If you look at the M4 corridor in Thames Valley, that has been phenomenally successful over the last 20 or 30 years, particularly around IT and technology and I would argue that the challenge for the Enterprise M3 area is that this neighbour is one of our strongest competitors. One of the reasons why our job is so important is that we need to compete nationally and internationally, but also much more locally.
“We know there will be lots of companies wanting to come to this area, and my advice to them would be to work through the criteria that business would apply to any location.
“We have a pool of talent and skills here, for instance, but then it is a more expensive
location for salaries compared to some other areas, so there is definitely a trade-off. But then there is more access to decision makers here because the bigger corporates tend to be based down here. “We also know that one of the challenges here is the road and rail infrastructure which is under more pressure because it is a more prosperous and thriving place with a wonderful quality of life, but that bring these challenges.”
That quality of life is important for the next generation of workers as well, with the University of Southampton, Southampton Solent University, University of Winchester and University of Portsmouth responsible for more than 65,000 students. Then there are the 21 major colleges of further education, 70 state secondary schools and 19 independent schools. Looking a bit further afield, within an hour’s drive you can find another 90 universities.
“But there is no way we can be complacent, however successful we are,” says David. “We must work really hard to make sure we have an ongoing dialogue with the big corporate players already based here.“It is certainly much more exciting than daunting here in the Enterprise M3 region. The future is bright, particularly with so many of those big players not doing their innovation in-house any more. In many cases it is now the supply chain that is doing the innovating and driving value back into the area, so we have to support the large businesses with the huge impact and the smaller guys who are feeding into that.”
To have richly-skilled and innovative companies wanting to come to your area is the first part of the battle. Now Hampshire is securing them, keeping the established businesses here as well and distilling from all that interest the perfect mix for the region as it continues to thrive.