As part of our look at the role of the local authorities Kevin Lloyd, head of economic growth at Surrey County Council talks about his work to bring more long-term investment to the region.
Attracting investment has always been a key part of the council’s strategy in Surrey – there would rightly be questions asked if it wasn’t – but Kevin Lloyd has helped lead a profound change in the way it is done, which is paying huge dividends for the region.
The Invest in Surrey initiative is forward-thinking and powerful, looking for innovative newcomers to join and strengthen a range of niche sectors and knowledge-driven industries including 5G, automotive, media, cyber security and satellite technology. Those new investors know they are in good company, with some of the UK’s largest corporations – including BP, McLaren, Novartis, Proctor & Gamble, Siemens and Samsung – already choosing the region for their headquarters and helping grow a £37.5b economy – bigger than Birmingham, Liverpool or Leeds.
“In the last 12 to 18 months we have considerably enhanced what we do and made it far more specific,” says Kevin. “Our key taglines now are that we are intelligent, networked and innovative, which are characteristics that some people who should know better might not associate with Surrey. It has an enormous economy with some huge organisations choosing to be in that ‘fringe’ around London because of the proximity to the airport and London, but also because they have access to a highly-skilled workforce in Surrey. So some of those locational advantages are very powerful, but the networked element and the degree to which the connectivity is fundamentally important is unmatched. The broadband here is also probably at the top end of what is available outside the major cities.”
So the location is undeniably key, but the years of hard work that have gone into building the scaffolding for growth around that location is what is making the difference and persuading firms lured by a one-hour trip to the capital. Top of the list of achievements during those years is the establishing of a world-leading reputation for R&D.
One of the growing areas, where the world is looking to Surrey for leadership and innovation, is satellite technology. “Clearly the space and satellite sector is important to us,” says Keith.
Surrey Satellite Technology, the world’s leading commercial small satellite company, has been in this business for a long time and is operating some significant programmes for a wide range of clients. It is no surprise that the Surrey Space Centre is so close by for development and engineering work. “The level of connectivity we have here is also helping build an ecosystem. If an area is going to look attractive than it needs the links to the research and knowledge and a cluster or concentration of firms already active in the sector commercialising that knowledge.
“We have Government institutions working in the area with the universities in some of the leading technologies, which is really strong, enabling work like 5G which is going to be so fundamentally important for our future.
“That combination of a long history of innovation, with universities often working on linked activities, and a very positive connectivity situation is a story that hadn’t really been told before. We can now tell people what is being done here and then add at the end ‘oh - and
it’s a really nice place to live’.
“In the past the level of effort required to bring investment here compared to regions that have a real regeneration problem would, frankly, have been much lower. The issues throughout the vast majority of Surrey are not about us having places that need to be turned around, although a lot of the chief executives of the districts would tell you that the town centres are looking tired, which means there are opportunities there that are not being taken forward.”
So Kevin is not letting Surrey’s success go to their heads and won’t want his region to waste the advantage of such a huge head start and still lose the race for investment. He is well aware of the danger of standing still in a fast-changing economy, particularly with the uncertainty of the Brexit vote. So the drive for more continues.
“The pattern of development is not going to change that much because of the constraints of the green belt and the general political pressure on the planning system. So large-scale campus developments will be quite unusual, but what we will continue to do is use the already developed places, particularly town centres, as areas where there are opportunities for commercial development alongside housing development.
“Those housing developers are understandably very keen to be here, but left to their own devices I think the market would provide a large number of houses, many of which would be for people who work in London – because they are the people who can afford them. So it is really important that in the development that does take place, it is mixed and a balance between commercial and residential. If we do the two together then we get to the position where we are not just a dormitory for London.
“There is an issue here that is reaching a tipping point where the economy might not be as successful in the future and so in order to maintain success we need to put in more effort in retaining firms that we have and encourage them to invest more, alongside a balanced pattern of new development.”
The balance also needs to be struck in assessing the potential GVA of each firm looking to set up in Surrey and not just hand the keys over to everyone who sounds as if they are committed to building the region’s future.
“Some of the firms that are quite small in terms of staffing and their physical footprint are incredibly high value. The reason why we have emphasised the ‘intelligent and innovative’
aspect of what is available in Surrey is that this is an areas that is going to survive and flourish on the basis of a knowledge economy. This work from the smaller firms is then applied elsewhere, so we need to make sure we have an offering that encourages those people to either stay here or move here.
“It also has to be a rounded offer. The night-time economy in Surrey is never going to be the same as London – and a lot of the existing residents would not want it to be. But the town centres have to offer something that feels good enough for people who might be thinking of moving from London to live and work here.
“We are looking after a hugely broad picture here, and we know that if you don’t have an opportunity for people working in our businesses to come and live here as well, then either firms aren’t going to locate here or if they do then their staff are going to commute, putting even more pressure on what is already a heavily-loaded road and rail system. “One of the important parts of any skills strategy is having houses workers can afford to live in – which is a really uphill struggle in places across the South East.
“The opportunities for the economy are very clear. The important thing is that the broader infrastructure can support that and that the transport system can provide what we need and that the housing and schools are in place and that there is a wider service economy.”
There is no doubt there has been a wake-up call for the local authorities around the M3 corridor. Success could have been kept bubbling along at a rate that would still be impressive in many areas of the UK, but Surrey has huge pride in what it has done over the decades and has no intention of sitting back and congratulating itself.
There is a newly refreshed commitment to make sure that for its future generations it continues be a beacon of business success and investment opportunities and the UK’s hotspot for innovative technologies.