Who needs time travel when you have enterprise?

The economy is back to where it was in 2006 - where do we go from here?

It’s strange to be waking up in summer 2012 to find ourselves in an economy that is no bigger than it was in 2006. So how can we travel "back to the future" and get the economy back on track? In the absence of a plutonium-powered car, the vehicle to get us back to economic growth is enterprise.

Centre for Cities’ new report, "Open for Business", shows how important enterprise is to a city economy. The research, sponsored by ICAEW, takes a detailed look at the make-up of city economies to establish what makes a city economically successful.

It finds there are two prongs to private sector economic growth in our cities – the ability to attract businesses from elsewhere (other UK cities and abroad) and the ability to "grow your own’. Our strongest cities are those that have been able to do both.

A detailed breakdown of the business bases of UK cities reinforces this point. The majority of the UK’s strongest cities are those that have a large proportion of branch businesses and high levels of enterprise:

Of course, being open to external business also means that in the short term some cities may be even more exposed to turbulence in the global economy. The Eurozone crisis may impact upon businesses headquartered in the Eurozone, potentially leading to consolidation of businesses and knock-on job losses. Cities like Coventry and Swindon, with a higher proportion of Eurozone-owned businesses, will need to focus on policies that can support domestic enterprise to help offset any potential fallout from troubles across the Channel.

Overall it is clear from the research that cities with a mix of home grown businesses and branches are best placed to weather any storms heading our way. But what does this mean for policy?

There has been no shortage of enterprise initiatives from previous Governments, ranging from Thatcher's Enterprise Allowance Scheme to New Labour's Local Enterprise Growth Initiative. The recently launched Start-up Loans are the latest addition to the list. But the impact that these schemes have had upon levels of enterprise is difficult to quantify based on existing evidence. So what can the government and cities do to hit the accelerate button on enterprise at a time of economic instability?

One thing that can make an important difference is for national government and cities to continue investing in the core themes that make a big difference to business. This means improving transport and skills and making the planning process more responsive to business needs.

Cities also need to respond to the specific challenges facing their local economies. Our work shows that open, entrepreneurial cities are best placed to grow, and cities should aim for this mix of home-grown business and receptive to new ideas and people.

Depending on the city’s specialisms and where it needs to improve, this could mean implementing policies from support for start-ups or existing companies to ensuring the city is working with UKTI and others to showcase where there are opportunities for external investment.

It will take time to get back to where our economy should be. But by getting enterprise policy right today, cities can help to steer the wider UK out of economic underperformance and into growth.

TechHub, a start-up shared space in Old Street, West London. Photograph: Getty Images

Alexandra Jones is the director of the Centre for Cities

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.