Monday, December 04, 2006

Betts off for urban economies

The Star also reports on Sheffield MP Clive Betts' response to a new report from the government's Communities and Local Government quango:
Academics say despite massive amounts of public funding to improve business, productivity and earnings in the north, it has only managed to make things worse.
They said no city north of Derby has an economy that is performing better than the national average, according to the report which was commissioned by the Government.
And Sheffield is in the bottom five places when it comes to recording new patents - a measure of inventions and breakthroughs in industry.
But Sheffield Attercliffe MP Clive Betts rejected the report and said business was booming.
"Go around Sheffield and look at the new private sector investment going on. There's new businesses in the Lower Don Valley, new residential accommodation in the city centre and the New Retail Quarter which are massive private investments.
"Look at companies in my constituency such as Forge Masters, which has taken on 42 new apprentices and expansions at the business park at the airport," he added.

Can't help feeling that Betts is being a wee bit daft. Wonder if he's actually read the report, 'The Competitive Economic Performance of English Cities' (downloadable here)?

(Actually, I doubt the Star journalist read it, as all the factoids are recycled from a typically idiosyncratic story in Daily Mail. By 'idiosyncratic', I mean either massively dishonest or stupid. The Mail says:
The damning report - commissioned by the Government - suggests public spending at levels once associated with the Soviet bloc have done more harm than good. It told ministers: "The overt policies followed so far and the unintended consequences of others have either failed to close this gap or actually made it worse"
which omits the crucial qualifier from the report for many decades - ie, the problem long predates the current Labour government, contrary to the Mail's implication. The problem is lack of investment, particularly from the private sector, not too much public investment. Utter bullshit from the Mail, and sloppy idle journalism from the Star.)

The report itself is a solid investigation into various aspects of city and regional economic development, with a wealth of info and ideas for anyone interested in such (which we all are, right?), and touching on a lot of issues I've written about previously. The report takes Sheffield as a case study alongside Cambridge, Derby and London. While it's not beyond criticism, the stats which Betts objects to are fairly unarguable, even if the brief summaries given in the Star story are less than entirely helpful (the report said 31 out of 56 cities lagged behind the rest, apparently. What?)

The report's introduction notes:
Sheffield provides an example of a traditional manufacturing based economy that has suffered from de-industrialisation. Although there have been some improvements over the last ten years, the city’s economy is still locked into past economic forms that can be seen as hindering its competitive advantage.
The local economy has traditionally been dominated by manufacturing industry, specialised in a restricted number of sectors, primarily related to the steel industry. [...] there is still a dominance of manufacturing industry, and some local opposition to diversification, identified as a force for continuity. Other barriers identified include few entrepreneurs to take forward ideas, the limited markets served by the city, and a lack of willingness on the part of the private sector to push for diversification.
[...] there are still concerns over the predominance of a risk-averse culture within Sheffield, and a lack of entrepreneurial skills which may hamper the development of this competitiveness driver and so prevent upgrading of the urban economy in the future.
As a result of these issues the data for Sheffield’s key economic indicators paint a difficult picture in terms of competitiveness and economic performance. Sheffield’s industrial heritage has left deep scars in terms of the economic structure of the city, which has been slow to adjust to new economic and technological forms. Local strategic decision-makers are keen to encourage new institutional and economic forms. Despite this the history of the pathdependent nature of the local economy cannot be ignored, and the fortunes of the city cannot be turned around overnight.

which seems fair to me.

The section specifically looking at Sheffield, as a case study of a 'de-industrialised' city, introduces a number of initiatives I've written at length about before, such as AMP, Finningley and the city centre redevelopment. A comment about the fine line between Sheffield's much-praised 'villagey' feel and a parochial susceptibility to negativity sounds about right, as does this about the city's manufacturing elders:
It should also be noted that in a city such as Sheffield, where manufacturing industry has traditionally been strong, the industrial elites associated with traditional manufacturing sectors are perceived as having a powerful role and considerable influence, particularly through the Cutler’s Company. Respondents suggested that their culture and background do not always sit harmoniously with the innovating new sectors that are contributing to drive the city’s economy; this can be a constraining factor for innovation in the city, as a force making for continuity, and not embracing change.

Overall, it's realistic and pretty positive about Sheff and its prospects. There's still plenty to be done, but the report is in no way as negative as Betts' soundbites would suggest.

More generally, the report points to the lopsided distribution of venture capital firm head offices (243 in London, 42 in Manc, 36 in Leeds and 35 in Brum, apparently) as an indicator of the failings of the knowledge-based economy outside the South East: There is therefore a distinct regional and urban dimension to the equity gap, in those small and new firms in the regions and cities outside the [South East] that find it difficult to access finance for investment, including venture capital. However, as I've written previously, there's mounting evidence that the equity gap no longer persists. (As I explore in a recent article in Corporate Financier, the gap may now be in corporate finance advice rather than funding per se.)

There's also some interesting findings re economic health and general quality of life, which run counter to some claims:
The concept of quality of life is a much abused idea. It has often been used for political purposes with scant regard to its clear and consistent definition or the available empirical research that seeks to clarify what it means to citizens. All too often it has become one of the promotional tools employed by city agencies with the main aim of making their particular location attractive to global capital [...but] there is no necessary connection between the standard of living enjoyed by residents of a city and the economic performance of its economy.

Cambridge, meanwhile, is generally seen as an exemplar of a knowledge-based cluster, but it faces some of the same problems (which I wrote about a few years ago here) as Sheffield -
Tough containment policies are seen to limit potential investment and economic growth in both Cambridge and Sheffield. In both cases restrictions on the land and building available for high-tech and other forms of knowledge intensive industries has hampered their development. This has restricted rates of change.

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