How can cities create the right environment for growth?

The launch event

The RICS building on Parliament Square was the setting for the launch of the third annual Centre for Cities Small Business Outlook on 19th October. Quite apt, considering how frequently business rates and planning were mentioned, but more of that later.

Chaired by Alexandra Jones, CEO of Centre for Cities, a panel consisting of Jaya Chakrabarti of Nameless, Laura Wellington of Duke Studios, and Mike Spicer of the British Chambers of Commerce, discussed the report’s findings and added their own localised views on the key issues.

Central to the report is a focus on digital, creative and professional services firms – collectively referred to as “New Work” – and how growth in those industries creates a ripple effect throughout the rest of the economy.

Between 2009 and 2013, “New Work” industries outperformed the rest of the economy by one and a half times, adding to that cities with higher proportions of these industries which reported higher productivity and employment overall.

So it seems we should focus on driving investment into those industries to benefit the wider city…but that’s not the story the report goes on to tell.

While it’s true these industries go hand in hand with all the benefits the report outlines, it’s also important to remember that every area of the UK can’t be a creative or digital hub – if everywhere is special, nowhere really is.

So what do we need to focus on in Peterborough?

There’s only one Silicon Valley or Tech City for a reason, and they can’t be artificially reproduced. Clusters of businesses form naturally – around other similar companies when the conditions are right for growth – (think of growing a crystal in a children’s science kit) and it’s this that we need to focus on as a city.

The environment needs to be right for businesses to thrive and I think we’re taking great strides in this area, but more can still be done.

‘Skills’ is one of the catalysts for encouraging clusters to form, as talent pools naturally attract businesses looking for that talent. Peterborough is making great strides in addressing this issue through the work of our educational facilities and Opportunity Peterborough’s Skills Service – and as we progress towards making the University of Peterborough a reality, this will only increase.

Access to the right digital infrastructure is of huge importance to ‘new work’ companies, and fortunately, as the first gigabit city in the UK, Peterborough businesses can now connect to a new city-wide pure fibre internet network.

It’s not just digital infrastructure though; during the Q&A at the Centre for Cities event, a lot was said about how business rates can be stifling, and hopefully local retention will encourage a new approach and flexibility.

With the relaxation in planning regulations, underutilised commercial space is now being converted to residential. This is great for bringing life back into the city centre – a long held ambition – but we need to ensure that the new commercial space is in place for those businesses to flourish.

Lastly, Centre for Cities identified internationalisation as a fundamental aspect to growth. According to the report, Peterborough is behind the curve on export and this is borne out anecdotally at a local level. The reality may be quite different as we know local companies do trade internationally, but it should become a priority for the city to explore these new marketplaces, and something that OP will be working with partners on to support.

In light of this framework, the city needs to understand the needs of ‘new work’ (and in fact all) sectors. It shouldn’t try to impose clustering but rather create the environment and talent development to enable those companies to grow.

To move up the rankings and help our businesses – and to attract more companies to the city – we need to focus on the assets we have, work on those we don’t (university and skills sits top of the list along with encouraging more international trade) and nurture the businesses that are already here.

As a city we have so much of what “new work” businesses look for in the business environment, and by combining that with continuing our meaningful engagement with companies – which is invaluable and fundamental to the work of Opportunity Peterborough – we can ensure Peterborough’s economic future is bright.