2 February 2010

A few years ago Lowestoft faced one of the worst periods in its long and distinguished history: low levels of entrepreneurship and enterprise; a failing business community in declining industries and a lack of aspiration amongst its population. Having drifted into the 15% most deprived places in the country, action needed to be taken if the town was not to descend into complete deprivation.

As major employers such as Shell and Birds Eye either relocated or reduced their presence in the town, they left behind a declining business stock and a fragmented supply chain.

Aspiration amongst young people was low with the main priority being to “escape” the area. Levels of educational attainment lagged behind the regional and national average and with traditional low skills jobs fast disappearing levels of unemployment started to soar.

Enterprise and entrepreneurship was in sparse supply with the area having the lowest number of business start ups in the East of England. It seemed to be a forgotten area when it came to provision and take up of business support initiatives and few role models for people to aspire to. For those who did go on to start up in business the stock of office and workshop space was of a very low quality, old and decaying. The town was not attractive to speculative developers who could gain greater returns on their investment elsewhere.

Despite these problems it was possible to find enterprise in some unexpected areas – visionary teachers in local schools, community leaders, local councils and of course NWES. Whilst there was no grand conference held or glossy strategy written there was an informal network established between these individuals, each of whom undertook to make a difference in their specialist area.

As the local enterprise agency NWES acted as the catalyst to ensure that change occurred. Over the last few years we have helped to transform the town to the extent that unemployment levels are lower than the regional and national average, there is a greater and more diverse mix of businesses operating and we are looking to the future by establishing Lowestoft as the UK centre for renewable energy.

We have taken a business like approach to everything with sustainability being the key. By investing £3m+ of our own money we have also levered in capital funds from the local authorities and the RDA to provide a ring of managed workspace catering from light industrial requirements through to a state of the art Innovation Centre for the Renewable sector.

On their own buildings offer little, it is the activity within which determines the success or failure in reaching your objectives. By linking in with High Schools, we have started the process of enthusing young people with the desire to be enterprising, opened their eyes to the exciting opportunities in new sectors such as Renewable Energy and established a sense of pride in their town.
Within our centres we provide intensive training and 1-1 support for any aspiring entrepreneur; free of charge. Our role is clear – to be a trusted friend to anyone considering starting or growing a business. We are known as “the place to go to” and act as the enterprise hub referring clients on to the “spokes” such as Business Link, Princes Trust, Universities and colleges as appropriate.

We believe that most things can be replicated if required and this is the case with what we have achieved in Lowestoft. There are a number of base “rules” which need to be considered and met if intervention is likely to succeed:

– Managed workspace can be made to work in any size of town
– In deprived areas it will require public sector capital intervention to succeed
– Centres must be operationally in profit after 3 years
– Break even rates should be set at 70% occupancy
– “easy in, easy out” terms are what tenants want
– The building alone is not enough. It is what happens inside that encourages enterprise
– A well publicised start up training programme along with one to one support is crucial to deliver sustainable business starts
– Large public sector led “partnerships” will not achieve much. What is required is a small cadre of determined people from all sectors who will actually achieve the desired outcomes
– Do not concentrate on quantity but on quality. Penetration targets and similar are meaningless – there is no “one size fits all” provision and effort should be made to encourage sustainable start ups not some arbitrary target.
– Do not compete on price (we are the most expensive in the town but the service is the best).
– Invest in the most deprived areas as this has the maximum effect as a catalyst for further investment

The desire to regenerate through enterprise is a core element in the strategy of most areas and regions; however the rhetoric is not often transformed into reality. What has been demonstrated in Lowestoft with the aid of NWES is that vision, strategy, persistence combined with an element of stubbornness and a refusal to take “No” for an answer can make a real difference.

Lowestoft is “on the edge” both in terms of geography and in enterprise activity. We have shown how deprivation, seasonal unemployment, low investment levels and a cycle of despair can be halted and reversed. The town has not had the benefit of copious levels of government spending seen elsewhere and yet it stands as a case study of how to generate enterprise through a combination of selected capital investment combined with innovative services to stimulate entrepreneurship from disaffected pupils in schools through to growth businesses in new technology areas.

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