The Treasury is to back a competition to find the UK's 20 fastest-growing inner city businesses as part of a new initiative to boost enterprise in the poorest parts of the country.
The Top Twenty contest is due to be announced next month by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and Lloyds TSB, with the winner named in the autumn. It will look for companies based in inner-city areas that have had the most rapid sales growth over three to five years. Ed Mayo of the NEF said: "It will help us to find out what can be achieved, and what success stories there are."
The competition is based on the successful Inner City 100 contest in the US. In its second year across the Atlantic, the winners, whose names are due to be published in Inc magazine next month, include a $151m (£94m) computer accessories maker, a $92m construction firm and a $7.1m Net access provider.
The US organisers were among experts who visited 11 Downing Street last week for a seminar on boosting the competitiveness of inner cities. Stephen Timms, the Treasury minister, said: "A lot of these ideas we can apply in the UK. We need to persuade people... that tackling disadvantage is in everybody's interests."
Anne Habiby, director of strategy for Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, which launched the Top 100 in the US, said: "A lot of the winners are real rags-to-riches stories. Before this we had no concrete images of business success in the inner city." Her colleague Elisabeth Reynolds said inner cities had some competitive advantages, including access to transport and big markets.
The top-ranked US company this year, Caribbean Shippage and Cold Storage of Jacksonville, Florida, is a transport company employing 125 full-time staff whose sales rose a staggering 18,000 per cent to just over $20m in 1998.
Manuel Pastor, Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Santa Cruz in California, said the Government's welfare-to-work programme had been a key step forward in the UK. "There is a lot of sympathy for the working poor, but not for those who are not working. Most voters believe that if you go to work every day you shouldn't be below the poverty line," he said.
Mr Timms said it was essential to create the belief in the UK that there were opportunities in all areas. Ministers will take the message to a number of British cities, in an echo of President Bill Clinton's 1998 "New Markets" tour. Politically it is seen as important in this country to prevent a wedge being driven between the interests of traditional Labour inner-city areas and "middle England".
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