Nov 3, 2019

Look at Memphis for hope on how to banish the regional blues

written by Lisa Eason

Urban regeneration should be a priority for government and entrepreneurs alike. It must be a core element of every party manifesto at the general election on December 12. If Britain is to become a more prosperous and equal society, we must revive our poorer regional towns and cities. In particular, solutions should be found for many seaside and ex-mining communities, which are among the most deprived neighbourhoods in northern Europe.

Industry and jobs drive recovery. That means private sector investment. Unfortunately, a large proportion of investment is directed towards the wealthy, high-employment areas of the country, such as London. Significant technology, behavioural and business shifts have hollowed out regional communities, and many have not reinvented themselves. The decline of the steel, coal and shipbuilding industries hit many parts of the Midlands and the north hard, while too many seaside resorts lost their main commercial activity as holidaymakers switched to overseas destinations.

More recently, the digital revolution has eviscerated high streets and shopping centres.

Last week, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) think tank produced a useful document titled A Rising Tide: Levelling Up Left-behind Britain. It provides data showing how London and the southeast do well when it comes to investment, trade, growth, economic value added, earnings and household income, while too much of the rest of the country suffers from a brain drain and a lack of such success. To help fix these problems, the CPS recommends that local areas should be given more flexibility to vary taxes, and to develop their own transport and investment policies. It suggests a national infrastructure fund to back energy, electric vehicle and digital infrastructure projects, prioritising the regions. It also thinks the government should create opportunity zones in deprived areas, with favourable business and tax regimes to attract investment.

These types of initiatives work best when local champions from the private sector become involved. If the public sector does all the running, it feels too much like state welfare. It is essential that entrepreneurs and corporates back any such efforts, helping to make sure that the ideas and execution are pragmatic and about self-help rather than endless charity from Whitehall.

Amazing things are possible with enough collaboration and entrepreneurship. Last week I was in Memphis, a city with more obvious poverty and physical dereliction than I have ever seen in Britain. Yet there was hope. The renovation of a 1.5m sq ft former Sears warehouse into Crosstown Concourse shows a way forward.

The warehouse had been an abandoned wreck for 20 years, but in 2015 it was converted into offices, workshops, homes, restaurants and educational, arts and health facilities. The founders tapped more than 30 funding sources and thanks to 40 initial tenants, the project took off. The whole venture is an inspiring demonstration of what even depressed communities can achieve with sufficient will.

Last year, our government announced the creation of a Future High Streets Fund to revitalise retail thoroughfares. The taxpayer is providing £1bn to kick-start regional regeneration. A consortium of professional bodies, data providers and community networks is leading the efforts. I am pleased that an entrepreneur, Sir John Timpson, chaired the review that led to the fund. I hope the cash is wisely dispensed to local partnerships with private sector operators, who understand markets and can restrict red tape.

Overall, the winners in next month’s election must prioritise support for entrepreneurs — because it is they who will create the jobs, generate the taxes and drive the innovation and productivity growth our society needs.

A new plan called Start Us Up, launched by the Kauffman Foundation, a giant US think tank, offers some ideas. It demands proportionate regulation for smaller companies, not one size fits all, and recommends an entrepreneurship impact statement for any new laws.

The plan asks for equal access to the right kind of capital everywhere — and for policymakers to encourage immigrant entrepreneurs by authorising start-up visas. Incubators and accelerators should be backed with grants, and an entrepreneurship corps of seasoned founders created to mentor and train start-up bosses.

I hope that whichever party wins next month, it understands that entrepreneurs can lead the regeneration charge and thereby bring hope to left-behind Britain.