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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.