18th August 2011
The subject of Enterprise Zones is the “hot” business topic of the moment with the news that areas within Lowestoft, Beccles and Great Yarmouth have been bestowed with this favoured status in the latest round of Government announcements.
There is no doubt that anything which is designed to support the economy in these areas is to be welcomed, especially given that the focus of this zone is on the vital renewable energy sector which is still in its infant stage.
Before looking at what this could mean for the local economy, we need to go back some 30 years to the first round of Enterprise Zones, which were introduced in the early 1980’s as an answer to the recession which the country was in the grip of following years of industrial decline. Even then the concept was nothing new with the idea first arising in the USA in the late 1960’s. It may surprise many, that both in America and the UK, the principle was invented and espoused by those on the left of the political divide but it required a Conservative government to bring it to reality.
Then, as now, there were financial and planning incentives for companies to locate in these “favoured” areas. However it should be noted that the financial incentives are relatively modest and short term and it would be a very foolish business person who would make a long term location decision based solely upon Enterprise Zone status. What being an EZ can do is remove a barrier for growing and ambitious businesses and speed up the pace of recovery and/or investment into an area.
The real challenge with such temporary incentives is to turn Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft into competitive business locations to both retain and recruit more companies to the area. This will require much more work than simply marketing land with “benefits” attached. It will require a complete change in mindset for politicians, business people and the local workforce to ensure that the benefits are lasting and that the inward investment does not turn into outward losses once the incentives cease.
NWES was itself born in Lowestoft during the era of Enterprise Zones and since 1982 it has helped create over 15000 new businesses and transform the lives of many local people. It is a combination of people and places which breed success and one cannot work without the other. As such the lure of EZ status needs to be coupled with a strong business support structure provided by organisations such as ours, designed to provide companies with the skills to survive and grow at a quicker pace than they would otherwise have done.
It is easy to get carried away with forecasts of job growth – which can often lead to disappointment when they fail to be reached. The evidence of the eighties zones is that of a total of 63000 jobs created only 13000 were new jobs – the remainder merely being displaced from neighbouring areas.
So how can the EZ status provide a long term benefit for the area? A major difference between the current crop of zones and the previous is that each of the areas has based their application upon favouring a particular market segment – in our case renewables. This should avoid the displacement seen in areas such as Dudley which saw farmland transformed into a shopping complex putting many local traders out of business. To cement businesses into the area we need to attract major investment which it is difficult to move and this means infrastructure.
The Local Enterprise Partnership and councils have a task ahead of them which will require them to be fleet of foot and willing to concentrate effort and resource in the EZ, perhaps to the short term detriment of other places and schemes.
         Planning needs to be overhauled with clear policy for the area available within the next 2-3 months and a guarantee that the planning process will not last more than a few days and weeks for eligible schemes.
         Where infrastructure is needed it takes priority over ALL other schemes
         Coherent marketing messages need to be ready within the month and distributed widely to potential interested parties
         Local businesses need to be properly engaged to avoid short term displacement, negative comment and curtailed investment
         Workforce training needs to be a priority in the targeted sector of energy
         A strong economic development team needs to be assembled at short notice drawing far and wide for the very best professionals in the sector
         A strong business support offering is required to meet skills and funding gaps inhibiting investment
         The leading lights in the energy sector need to sing the praises of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft as we will be in direct competition with Humberside for he same investment.
The task has only just begun and all that the EZ status gives us is a head start, but for business that is usually all they need and if we are to avoid the mistakes seen in previous generations we need to grasp the opportunity for this area to be the centre for the UK renewables industry and not lose out to other more entrepreneurial locations as happened with the oil and gas exploration sector in the seventies.
History can act as a useful guide for the future of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and there can be no excuses for not taking full advantage of this helping hand to transform the local landscape and finally break the dependant nature of these great towns.
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