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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle