Supporting business: let's follow northern Europe

The UK needs to raise its game.

As the UK economic recovery continues to stutter, calls for a return to an active industrial policy to restore the competitiveness of British business grow louder. We are increasingly looking to Germany and other northern European economies to understand how they have managed to weather the global recession more successfully than the UK.

One lesson that the UK could take from our northern European competitors is the way they support businesses to expand and innovate. Very little of this support has traditionally been available in Britain, with governments paying scant attention to the choices that employers make about how to compete, despite the impact this has on innovation, resilience, wages and the quality of goods and services. 

Labour’s Business Link service was designed to fill this gap but its impact was patchy, often lacking operational knowledge of local markets and a real understanding of how SMEs work. Instead of reforming Business Link into a service capable of promoting growth and innovation among British firms, the Coalition has simply reduced it to a generic website and phone line. This is in marked contrast to the tailored and practical business support available in a number of other European countries.

The failure of business support in the UK is rooted in the hands-off approach to industrial policy evident over the last three decades. Over this period, skills and training have been the only areas of business support deemed suitable for government intervention, an approach exemplified by the previous Labour government, which put adult skills policy centre-stage in its strategy for economic competitiveness and social inclusion. This was based on a misguided belief that a more highly qualified workforce would, by itself, drive innovation, competitiveness and resilience in the "knowledge economy". Substantial investment in adult skills coupled with targets to increase qualification rates among the adult population followed.

The impact of this new activity and funding was limited by Labour’s reluctance to consider how skills are used in the workplace, and what else drives innovation and competitiveness, like access to finance and market intelligence. As a result, a stubborn third of employers fail to invest in staff training and training rates have actually fallen over the last decade. Many UK firms have retained low-skilled, task-based production processes where training and workforce development are largely irrelevant to the bottom line. Studies suggest these kinds of business models are more prevalent in Britain than in many northern European countries. Such firms are profitable but could be less resilient to changing economic conditions. Levels of innovation also tend to be lower, and, for employees, the work is badly paid and repetitive. 

Countries like Germany, Finland, Norway and Australia have stolen a march on the UK by experimenting with different ways of supporting businesses to raise their game. Employers are supported to invest in new ways of working, access finance and develop new products, as well as to develop a well-skilled workforce. In one example in Finland, a local catering service was helped to restructure its business so that catering assistants took on a role in planning meals, budgeting and purchasing ingredients. Procurement costs fell and productivity improved, and the ability to use new skills raised motivation among staff. A simple training programme divorced from the need to reorganise the production process is unlikely to have delivered the same results.

Just like in welfare, extra support should be matched with extra conditions. To access public money for training and business support, employers would have to join local employer associations and commit to raising wages for trained staff or sharing the cost of training. But the specific deal would be left to local partners and employers to negotiate, taking skills policy and funding out of the hands of centralised quangos. In the UK, this kind of tailored business support delivered by people who know about business – whether in employer associations, professional bodies or local chambers of commerce – is the missing link that will ensure investment in skills delivers sustainable economic gains.

Kayte Lawton is Senior Research Fellow at IPPR. No Train, No Gain: Beyond free-market and state-led skills policy by Tess Lanning and Kayte Lawton is available here.

The Uk could take cue from Europe, Getty images.

Kayte Lawton is senior research fellow at IPPR.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.