Better off down the local

`Global' is the economic buzzword, but in Lincolnshire a more homely approach is capturing the attention of big business. By Paul Gosling
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The Independent Online
"Think global, act local" is an anthem of the green movement. It could also be a slogan for North East Lincolnshire Council. It thought about the global economy, and promoted, instead, the local economy.

Grimsby, at the heart of north-east Lincolnshire, is not just a major fishing port, it also contains, taken with nearby Immingham, the UK's largest working docks, as well as divisions of many of the country's top employers. But following the decline of the fishing and manufacturing industries it has male unemployment of more than 12 per cent, some 2 per cent higher than the British average.

It made sense, decided the council, to encourage big businesses in the area to purchase goods and services from small local companies. That way, more of the wealth generated in the area could be retained locally, and less damage inflicted on the environment by long-distance transport. A similar scheme in Coventry won back pounds 5m of trade to the local economy in three years, and north-east Lincolnshire believes it has recaptured even more.

The "buy local" campaign in Grimsby began four years ago, financially supported by its Training and Enterprise Council and the E uropean Commission's European Regional Development Fund. Chambers of commerce and big companies in the area have been won over to the scheme.

"It's about working together as a partnership," says David Laing, logistics director of CCL Industries, a manufacturer of aerosol products. "We are an international firm, and it takes a change of attitude to think first of buying locally. But it is bound to produce greater efficiency."

Gordon Bulter, port engineer for Associated British Ports, which runs the Grimsby and Immingham docks, adds: "You get better service, definitely. No comparison. It's the after-sales service that is most important. If you buy locally, one phone call and they are there. A lot of head offices don't understand that."

The council began its campaign with a buyers' evening, introducing buyers and suppliers and local support agencies, including the TEC and the local Business Link advice agency. It was hoped that 50 people might attend, but 170 turned up, and now more than 500 people are regular participants.

Each "meet the buyer" evening is organised by a different host company which makes a presentation explaining what it looks for from suppliers, and how much it spends. As well as being an opportunity to trade - one small computer retailer reports achieving pounds 10,000 sales at two events, at virtually no cost - the council also includes a training element, raising skill levels and awareness in smaller companies.

At one time, events such as these would have been organised by a chamber of commerce, but these now operate regionally and hold fewer local events. Some small businesses say they cannot afford the fees charged by the Humber chamber for its conferences and seminars.

The council has found that its new role has strengthened an already positive relationship with local businesses. Council buyers also attend buyers' evenings - though they are required by legislation to purchase through open tenders - and now include more local firms on tender lists.

The "buy local" campaign has its own electronic network - the Buy Local Net. Membership is free, and companies can obtain a pounds 75 grant towards buying a modem to access the network, which is primarily a bulletin board enabling companies to find new local suppliers and invite tenders and joint ventures. A full business-to- business local e-mail service is planned.

"The bulletin board gives us excellent supply chain information. For example, if repeated requests for a particular product or service get no response from the local business community we will take action to fill this gap in the chain," says Zara Lawson, "buy local" officer for North East Lincolnshire Council. All text displayed has to be approved by the council, to avoid it becoming simply an advertising medium, or used for pornography, for example.

A parallel initiative, Regain, or the Regional Audit of Industry, is being promoted across the whole country by the Department of Education and Employment, as part of an initiative to promote British goods. The department would like to see local trading and interdependency develop on the Japanese model.

Some major retailers are now looking to sell more local produce. This would reduce the environmental damage caused by centralised distribution, and end the absurdity of Lincolnshire potatoes being delivered to London before being sent back to Lincolnshire for sale in stores.

A Sainsbury subsidiary, Shaw's, on the United States Eastern seaboard, has an established practice of selling local produce. A similar scheme, based on this experience, is currently being piloted in Sainsbury's Savacentre shops in Britain, and is proving so successful that it is likely to be replicated in other Sainsbury stores across the country.

Local authorities may also examine the experience of Cologne in Germany, where 20 stalls in the market are set aside for local produce. Several British councils sponsor "box schemes", assisting local farms and smallholdings to deliver organic produce to consumers' doorsteps.

For all the talk of creating a single global economy, it seems that it may be premature to write off the local economy.

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