In the zone

I had a meeting this morning with business people from the new Local Enterprise Partnership, which covers the former Avon/ West of England Partnership area. http://www.westofenglandlep.co.uk/

LEPS are something introduced by the Government following the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies, when it became clear that actually RDAs did do some useful things and giving local economic development a sense of strategic direction was one of them. Unlike the RDAs however, there is no money behind them. The board members are unpaid (for this role, they have ‘proper’ jobs elsewhere), have no financial resources, and as yet have no office. The acting director is on secondment from South Gloucs council. Some staff will be recruited, I assume funded by the four local authorities, but it will be a very small operation.

My main questions to the LEP board members this morning were about Bristol’s new Local Enterprise Zone. (NB These were definitely called Local Economic Zones when announced in the spring Budget, but no-one could remember this, and everyone kept calling them Enterprise Zones so it now seems to have become official.) In the Budget it was announced that Bristol was one of the local areas that would definitely get a Zone. The Zone means that businesses (under a certain size) can locate there rent-free for 4-5 years, there will be reduced red tape/ planning controls, and access to high-speed broadband. And the local authority gets to keep all the business rates from the Zone for the next 25 years. So there’s not actually a pot of new money attached as such, but there is a future stream of additional funding.

Here’s the question I asked about it on March 28th in the Commons:

 

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East, Labour)

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned three cities having local enterprise zones, but he did not mention Bristol, although that was one of the 12 listed in the Budget. It is somewhat surprising that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was in Bristol on Friday but did not, as far as I am aware, tell us where the local enterprise zone is going to be. Can the right hon. Gentleman enlighten me?

Eric Pickles (Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Brentwood and Ongar, Conservative)

This is a very clear example of the difference between how we do business and how the Opposition did business. We are not going to tell the people of Bristol where the enterprise zones will go – they are going to tell us.

The decision has now been made by the people of Bristol  the LEP that Bristol’s Zone will be in Temple Quarter, and will extend out as far as Paintworks along the A4, but won’t include all of Paintworks, as some of it has already been developed to its full potential. (I learned this on Friday when I met with the developers of the old Royal Mail sorting office near Temple Meads station for an update on progress/ lack of. Good news on that front, they’re hoping to move in by next May so there should be visible signs of things happening very soon. I – and the local ward councillors who were also at the meeting – will be working with them to try to smooth out some of the obstacles preventing them from getting on with it.)

The process for deciding where the Zone would be was apparently made as follows. There were various expressions of interest from the local authorities and the Business Advisory Group (six in total). PWC came in to do some independent scrutiny of the process. The Chief Execs of the four councils were consulted. Last Tuesday a mass of information on each of the six areas went to the LEP Board, and they decided on Temple Quarter. (They were on a deadline of Thursday last week, imposed by central Government, so the decision had to be made quickly).

Temple Quarter was chosen because it most closely matched the Government criteria. It would benefit from a Local Development Order, ie a relaxation of local planning laws whereas, for example, Avonmouth was already subject to 1950s planning laws so didn’t need that, and there would have been public outcry at any suggestion of relaxing planning laws for the Bath riverside proposal. They also wanted a scheme where things weren’t going to happen anyway, ie where the Zone would bring added value. And they wanted something that could be delivered quickly.  But they also decided – and this is something unique to Bristol I think – that they would create five Local Enterprise Areas, which are basically those five which didn’t win the bid to be the Zone – and these areas will benefit from the business rates from the Zone (see above) being spent on them. Each area will have a specific theme, eg Bath riverside is creative, as is the Temple Quarter zone. North Bristol is hi-tech, Avonmouth is manufacturing/aerospace.

To reiterate what I’ve already said… I don’t have a problem with the decision to locate the Zone in Temple Quarter. 17,000 new jobs in inner city Bristol and regeneration of a site that has been derelict for far too long is good stuff as far as I’m concerned. It’s also, I’m told, part of the plan to sort out the hideousness that faces people arriving into Bristol via Temple Meads station, i.e. the ugly area across the road from the old Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which has to be a good thing. But I do think there should have been a more transparent and open process, and that local people – even if just the councillors on each of the four local authorities – should have been involved in this decision being made. Not just the decision about the location of the Zone, but also the decision to spend the business rates on the five other areas, as opposed to anywhere else that might have benefitted…

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