Economic growth promoters

'Innovation centres' give new businesses invaluable assistance
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The Independent Online

Government ministers, particularly the Chancellor Gordon Brown, have done much to promote the idea of enterprise and innovation being central to the success of the British economy in the 21st century. There is a vital role for Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to play in meeting this challenge.

Government ministers, particularly the Chancellor Gordon Brown, have done much to promote the idea of enterprise and innovation being central to the success of the British economy in the 21st century. There is a vital role for Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to play in meeting this challenge.

Alex McWhirter, head of enterprise at Yorkshire Forward, the RDA for Yorkshire and Humber, believes his organisation adds the "practical aspect" that helps people take the step of starting up on their own. He divides the efforts taken into two categories. Those taking place over the longer term include various initiatives "based on research and experience" and designed to ensure that individuals have the necessary support to start up businesses.

In the more immediate term, there are various projects aimed at providing both advice on starting up and continuing assistance to fledgling businesses. Among them is a series of "enterprise shows" that provide an opportunity for enterprising people to visit one venue over a couple of days at the weekend to see what is involved in setting up a business.

The organisation has also taken steps to close the funding gap that can be so detrimental to young businesses by providing access to finance through venture capital funds and other means.

At the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) a particular focus has been to establish "innovation centres" around the region. Inspired by the success of what has happened in Cambridge, the idea is to set up centres that provide a combination of physical accommodation and services for a large number of small businesses along with underlying support and networks. This approach, akin to that in what are known as business incubators, enables start-ups to be helped off the ground while giving existing small businesses the back-up needed to make them more powerful, says EEDA chairman Richard Ellis.

Conscious that it is impossible to copy Cambridge directly - where some years ago local business people drew upon the university's science laboratories to create a network of inter-related businesses - Ellis and his colleagues believe that some of the basic ideas can be replicated elsewhere. While some of the centres will be general in scope, others will be more like Cambridge in focusing on a specialism. The Great Yarmouth centre is based around energy, while that in Norwich is focused on microbiology and that in Peterborough on environmental technologies.

Whatever the approach, the idea is to try to create an environment in which young businesses can develop and grow for the benefit of both the regional and national economy. "It's very much about bringing people together for mutual support," he says.

As well as nurturing new businesses, RDAs are also mindful of the importance of supporting existing industries, which can in some cases be associated with a particular region or area to the extent that a "cluster" has been created.

All RDAs stress that they are not seeking to duplicate work that is already done by Chambers of Commerce, Business Link and other organisations focused on supporting and developing small businesses. In fact, they typically work in partnership with these bodies and others, such as local authorities, with the aim of strengthening and expanding the support already available.

This strength can play an important role, as happened when the EEDA intervened to save the research facility at Adastral Park, near Ipswich, which the US company Corning planned to close last year as part of an international restructuring programme. Over 25 years the centre had established a world-renowned reputation for expertise in fibre-optics, which has been at the centre of the development of the internet and aspects of photonics (light generation).

Determined not to lose a facility that because of its proximity to BT's research base at Martlesham has helped make Ipswich an important centre for telecommunications, EEDA purchased the bulk of Corning's physical assets at the site and, together with staff there, transformed it into the Centre for Integrated Photonics Ltd. It already has established links with various universities and with private sector organisations, including BT, and looks set to foster more innovation in the years ahead.

EEDA's Richard Ellis is convinced that if it had not been for this intervention a world-class research facility would have been lost to the region because of a decision taken thousands of miles away. "Without the RDA, it would have gone," he says.

Going places: the importance of transport to regional economic growth

Commuting can mean major stress for today's employees. For many people, the expense and time required to travel to work has become a major barrier to employment. Little wonder that more and more regional development agencies are taking action. "After all," says Anthony Payne, a director at the East Midlands Development Agency (EMDA), "our responsibility is to create sustainable economic growth and development. The provision of adequate and appropriate transport is a fundamental foundation for this."

He provides an example of a joint initiative between EMDA, Nottingham City Council and Nottingham East Midlands Airport. "We realised that if we were going to encourage people, especially in the lower income bracket, to travel to the airport to work, we'd have to make the commute more attractive," he says.

Enter the subsidised skylink bus. Connecting Nottingham with the airport, the bus not only provides public transport access opportunities for those flying in and out of the airport, but also for airport-based employees. Although a pilot scheme, early indications point to a success and it is hoped that the concept can be expanded.

A similarly innovative transport scheme has been funded by Advantage West Midlands (AWM), Centro and Jobcentre Plus, to help connect unemployed people from two disadvantaged areas of the West Midlands with new job opportunities. "The scheme, which operated from June 2003 to June 2004, provided unemployed people with the means to travel to jobs, interviews and training placements," says Sue Manns, planning and transport team leader at AWM.

Manns points out that transport's contribution to economic prosperity reaches much further than providing transport to potential and existing employees. Goods need to be able to get to market, people need to be able to travel to buy them and employees often need to be able to travel to develop new skills. "That's why, if we are going to create a modern, open and competitive economy in today's global market, it's going to rely heavily not only on intra-regional links but also international links. It's the only way we can exploit the competitive advantages of our regions."

This, she says, is why all RDAs are not only focusing on regional issues when it comes to transport, but also on shared national issues. "Led by Advantage West Midlands, the nine RDAs have been increasingly working together to influence the national transport agenda and have found that by speaking with a single united voice, they have a more powerful voice within government."

Sir Graham Hall, the industrialist leading the Northern Way, which aims to boost the economic performance of the North of England, is particularly excited about what RDAs are doing when it comes to transport. "Transport is a major issue for every region," he says. "In fact, three of the 10 key drivers for change that we have identified as part of the Northern Way, focus on transport. The first is improving rail access to Manchester Airport. When you travel somewhere by air, you don't want to have to travel another few hours to get to your destination. The second is improving access to the North's sea ports, which could do so much better if they had improved links. Finally, creating premier transport systems within the eight city regions where the most trade takes place."

Clearly, designing regional strategies that make the most of regional opportunities is a complicated task, and one that can perhaps seem a step removed from day-to-day life. But with transport, everyone has personal experience to draw on. Making the economic case in such an emotive debate is a major challenge for the RDAs.

Kate Hilpern