Northampton Waterside or Watered Down Enterprise Zone?

Has the Borough Council reduced its ambition?

A Has Waterside Enterprise Zone Now Become” Watered Down” EZ?

In June last year one of the major issues and challenges for the then new Northampton Borough Council Conservative administration was as I have previously ‘blogged’ to convince our colleagues and partners in the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership to support the Northampton Waterside Enterprise Zone application.

It was for me a challenge that needed to be met with real determination against a difficult economic situation nationally and if not opposition certainly lux warm support especially from the County Council who were following their own agenda that I believe is as predicted undermining the SEMLEP Waterside EZ.

As everyone knows the round of meetings I had with the Leaders of the SEMLEP Area Council Leaders and the regions MP’s allied to an excellent bid saw SEMLEP and Northampton being awarded the largest Enterprise Zone in England which was to provide over 10,000 new jobs by 2015, a success that was lauded by the local and national media, supported by all political parties at the Guildhall and of course also supported by the two MP’s for Northampton South and North.

The concerns however remained, centred on the Northamptonshire County Council who having failed to persuade East Midlands Councils, (Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire for the West Midlands) to let them join with their LEP and having refused to join SEMLEP in my view because of Milton Keynes involvement decided to go it alone.

In itself that wasn’t a problem in terms of competition because SEMLEP with a population of over 2 million is clearly a more inviting place to invest in than a LEP with a population of 600,000. It has also to be considered that at the time the Northampton Borough Council with a population of over 200,000 was and I hope still are fully committed to SEMLEP.

The major concern was the way in which the Northamptonshire Enterprise Limited (NEL) was re-launched as the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership (NEP) which then morphed into the NEPLEP with very strong links with our competitors at Silverstone through the County using taxpayers money to finance the NEPLEP and providing taxpayers loans to Silverstone Holdings with a number of people holding directorships on both organisations.

Enterprise Zone Bid was based on Government and Council support of business discussed on the Politics Show in August last year.

On the positive side of course was that the bid for an Enterprise Zone was based on the Governments assertion that they were relying on the success of their economic policy being sustained and delivered through support for Small and Medium size businesses, and in this I was personally grateful for the support from Brian Binley MP and Maxine Aldred from the Federation, it was support that I think made a difference in winning the bid.

Which brings me to the announcements in the press last week that are ringing some major alarm bells not only in Government and SEMLEP but especially in Northampton?

First of all there was the statement by Brian Binley, MP for Northampton South that “the Chancellor appears to have lost his economic toolkit”, and let me say if there is one thing you can rely on whatever your political persuasion or whether you agree or disagree with him it is that Brian is nothing but upfront and honest when he speaks or offers his opinion.

What in fact our MP was saying is what a lot of other people across the business community have been saying for over a year, simply that the “austerity one tool economic policy” is not working and will not work but simply lead to a greater national debt, massive unemployment and difficulties for hard-working people, non-more so than the people in low-income areas such as Northampton.

In effect the current failing economic policy rather than supporting business is in fact penalizing them through a lack of investment which we can see by the number of companies going into administration and closing down.

It is an impact you can see by walking around Northampton and seeing well established and well run valuable and respected businesses closing down taking the heart out of the town centre.

The impact goes further because as the strain on the town centre decline takes hold the opportunity to promote and develop out-of-town especially retail in areas such as Sixfields is also stifled and we will see a return to a Town Centre first policy which will understandably be demanded by the existing businesses and the Northampton BID.

The second statement that raises major concerns was that from the Leader of the Borough Council “it will be challenging but we hope to bring 500 new jobs to the Enterprise Zone by 2013”. If ever there was a statement that illustrated the change of focus and ambition of the Council that was it.

Government awarded SEMLEP the Northampton EZ to bring 10,000 new jobs to the town, jobs that would stimulate the Town Centre economy, stimulate Housing Development creating more jobs in the area, and provide infrastructure to support the growing population.

It now appears that the Government and Borough Council have accepted that this is no longer the ambition or outcomes required of the Enterprise Zone and in saying that they hoped to bring only 500 new jobs the message beings sent out to potential investors is of a town that lacks drive, ambition and commitment.

I wonder what those who will be taking the final decision on the £300 million investment in the Grosvenor Centre will make of it.

Whilst all of this has been going on of course Silverstone have announced great plans for its development and have attracted new business and fantastic economic development opportunities to the area of South Northants and Aylesbury Vale supported by loans from the Northamptonshire County Council and support from the NEPLEP.

It is a business plan that the CEO and his colleagues should justifiably not only be proud of but applauded by everyone as a demonstration of what you can do with drive, ambition and a clear focus on where you want to go in being successful. I think they are doing a fantastic job, creating employment and training opportunities across a whole range of hospitality and engineering services and increasing what is already a world-wide renowned and respected brand.

Northampton geographically is excellently placed to attract new business and alongside new the relocation of existing UK businesses who want to rationalise their industries and services.

An example would have been Argos and Eddie Stobbart in Corby. I don’t want to see business move out of any town but if they have to then Northampton should be beating a path to their door and offering them a facility in the Northampton EZ.

At the very least it would keep both the industry and jobs in Northamptonshire.

Isn’t that what the taxpayer is paying the NEPLEP and NBC/NCC staff to do?

I still remain fully committed to SEMLEP and the Northampton Waterside Enterprise Zone but fear that in the current political climate with increased deferring and deference for decisions being handed from the Borough to the County we are seeing a reduction in the  commitment to the project, which begs the question.

“Has the Northampton Waterside Enterprise Zone” now become the

” Watered Down” Enterprise Zone?