Roundtable: How can councils engage with businesses to generate growth and investment?

The LGA hosted a roundtable discussion which explored, ‘how can councils engage with businesses to generate growth and investment?’ The purpose of this roundtable was to provide high level thinking from councils around their role in building strong relationships with both new and existing businesses as well as how they can put their area on the map to attract new businesses.


  • Date: Tuesday 13 July 2021
  • Chair: Michelle Sacks, Deputy Chief Executive of Place at Boston Borough Council and East Lindsey District Council 
Introduction

The purpose of this roundtable was to provide high level thinking from councils around their role in building strong relationships with both new and existing businesses as well as how they can put their area on the map to attract new businesses.

The roundtable was chaired by Michelle Sacks, Deputy Chief Executive of Place at Boston Borough Council and East Lindsey District Council who also delivered a scene setting presentation about the work taking place in Boston.

Boston Borough Council scene setting presentation

The presentation focused on a recent investment by Plant and Bean in the Boston region. Following successful discussions with the council, Plant and Bean relocated to Boston and the region is now home to the largest plant-based meat production factory in Europe. Through this investment alone, 500 jobs were created.

A key factor in pitching for this successful investment was the strength of the council’s partnerships with different sectors both public and private which they were able to demonstrate and draw on throughout the negotiations with Plant and Bean.

The discussions with Plant and Bean included both senior officers from the council as well as members. The council used a place-based approach to emphasise the opportunities that exist within the region through their fresh produce network, their ambitions to become a free port and to develop the skills pipeline through their relationships with the schools and colleges in the region. From these negotiations they produced a business case for the proposed investment which was received positively. From there, the council was able to facilitate, on request from Plant and Bean, meetings with other key partners for example the principle from the college who was able to discuss available courses to match the skills demand.

The underlying theme behind these successful negotiations, was the council’s ability to demonstrate a co-working partnership approach and their ability to facilitate cross sector connections. The key lesson from the case study was the need for councils to engage with businesses on wider issues rather than just business rates, which is the perception businesses often have of local authorities. By including members in the negotiations, they were also able to demonstrate strong leadership at senior level.

In addition to the successful investment by Plant and Bean the council has developed a strong Town Deal Board, that through greater strategic partnership, has helped secure a £70 million town deal agreement (for Boston Town Deal and Connected Coast), therefore facilitating the long-term ambitions of the council for the region.

Further information about how the council used the Town Deal to create the partnership and secure the investment from Plant and Bean is included below:

Boston: new possibilities and a town for everyone

The key findings from the discussion

The key points discussed at the roundtable are highlighted below:

  • Relationships with businesses have improved since the start of the pandemic. Councils have more information on businesses than before, but this is raising challenges about how to manage this data.
  • Throughout the pandemic, councils demonstrated a wide level of support to businesses which challenged the negative perception that businesses can have of councils. There is an opportunity to now utilise the positive inroads made with businesses during the pandemic. Working collaboratively with different departments in the council will be key to achieving this.
  • Blending private sector experience and knowledge with public sector experience can help to strengthen relationships with businesses.
  • The availability of land and suitable workspace units can be a barrier to businesses investing even when there are good opportunities in the region.
  • Marketing and communication campaigns are more successful when branding is less focused on corporate style messaging and can lead to an increase in business engagement.
  • Skills shortages can be a barrier to investment. Cross sector partnership is needed to create a skills pipeline to meet the skills demand from employers.

These points are expanded below.

Relationships with businesses have improved since the start of the pandemic. Councils have more information on businesses than before, but this is raising challenges about how to manage this data

The distribution of support grants to businesses throughout the pandemic has helped to improve relationships between councils and businesses. Councils were able to collect more data on businesses than they had before the pandemic as more businesses came onto their radar.

However, a challenge that has stemmed from this influx of data is how to capture this information. Some delegates shared that their councils are currently reviewing which software to use to manage this information and how to share this with colleagues across the council. A few examples were shared that are currently being used by councils:

Using the influx of available data and the improved relationships with businesses, councils are keen to now shift from support during the pandemic to recovery and growth. Strengthening collaboration between the council’s different departments and sharing the information effectively to create a holistic support network for councils will be key.

Throughout the pandemic, councils demonstrated a wide level of support to businesses which challenged the negative perception that businesses can have of councils. There is an opportunity to now utilise the positive inroads made with businesses during the pandemic. Working collaboratively with different departments in the council will be key to achieving this

Throughout the pandemic, councils were able to demonstrate the wide level of support they can offer to councils. Conveying the covid messaging, working with them in adapting to the different requirements and the distribution of grants enabled them to counter the negative perception that businesses can hold of councils. It was suggested that these negative perceptions stem from the role of councils in collecting businesses rates as well as the role of regulatory services.

It was emphasised that economic growth and development links into a number of different departments including regulatory services such as planning, environmental health, etc. There is therefore a need to join up thinking between different council departments.

In Essex, the council employed an information officer, to engage with businesses during the pandemic and convey the key covid messaging. As well as being a face-to-face point of contact for businesses, the officer also worked internally to join up the different departments in the council and support businesses with their queries. In cases where the council was not able to resolve the queries, they signposted them to partners such as the FSB and LEP.

In Boston, they have an initiative to not charge what they refer to as “pre-pre-ap” for the pre application stage for proposed developments. Instead, they encouraged businesses to have conversations with the councils and relevant departments to discuss their proposals. Officers, from departments such as planning would be involved in these discussions. The purpose was to highlight any issues and concerns from the beginning and be transparent with businesses to foster the relationship.

The role of councils as connectors both internally and externally could counteract the negative perception that businesses hold of councils and offer a holistic support that engages businesses and encourages them to invest.

Blending private sector experience and knowledge with public sector can help to strengthen relationships with businesses

It was suggested that when engaging with businesses, councils need to do more to focus on what businesses’ priorities are. Adopting private sector knowledge and experience could help to achieve this and make businesses more willing to engage with the council.

As an example, Derby City Council has recently started to recruit from the private sector to tackle the barrier between councils and businesses and to redefine the functions that the council is traditionally seen as having.

By doing so the council can be more relatable to businesses. The emphasis also needs to be on what the council can do for the business rather than what the business can do for the council. Some officers at the roundtable also shared that engaging with medium tier and smaller businesses can be particularly challenging, therefore engaging on their terms is key and private sector experience can help facilitate better engagement.

The availability of land and suitable workspace units can be a barrier to businesses investing even when there are good opportunities in the region

Green belt land areas have also presented a challenge to local authorities regarding generating inward investment and business retention due to the lack of available sites.  Some councils reported that there was an increase in businesses seeking to exit London and relocate to the region. Despite the opportunities presented, there is a lack of commercial developments compared to housing developments and it was suggested that there needs to be a balance between the two.

From a community perspective and member perspective, the value of commercial property is not always recognised. The social value of commercial property needs to be communicated more in terms of creating jobs and generating inward investment.

Marketing and communication campaigns are more successful when branding is less focused on corporate style messaging and can lead to an increase in business engagement

Officers at the meeting highlighted examples where engagements from communications and marketing campaigns decrease when council branding is overly emphasised.  For example, where the council leader is featured on a main page. It was suggested that councils need to be more creative in their engagement approach and the standard corporate messaging does not engage businesses. To tackle this, some officers shared that their e-bulletin/newsletters are focused primarily on businesses and partner information. Examples of business newsletters issues by councils are included below:

Lichfield District Council

Southampton City Council

Reigate & Banstead

In Harrogate the council has a separate business newsletter as well as a resident’s newsletter:

Harrogate resident’s newsletter

Business newsletter

Some news items that feature positive examples of business developments in the region can feature in both newsletters.

Other platforms that were suggested as being useful engagement tools are Facebook and LinkedIn. In Lichfield the council is also planning to pilot a business Facebook group which will be a private group that businesses are invited to, as a space for the council to engage and interact with businesses.

LinkedIn has also been a useful tool for some councils in engaging with businesses directly and to highlight features about developments in the region. For example, a picture of The Quadrant development site in Boston generated 15000 views in a week.

Overall, it was agreed that being able to demonstrate content that is more relevant to businesses will make them more likely to engage and take an interest. Conveying positive messages, highlighting good work carried out by businesses, and moving away from corporate style communications has proven to be successful for councils in boosting engagement through communications channels.

Skills shortages can be a barrier to investment. Cross sector partnership is needed to create a skills pipeline to meet the skills demand from employers

One of the barriers councils can face in encouraging businesses to invest is a skills shortage particularly in regions with lower skills attainment. Therefore, businesses experience staff shortages in specialised jobs.

It was emphasised that cross sector partnership between the councils, businesses, schools, colleges, and universities would be key in creating a skills pipeline both for the present and future demand.

To address this challenge, Reigate and Banstead have created a website, Reigate & Banstead works. The webpage profiles local employers and provides signposting to ways to upskill to secure a job within a range of sectors and industries.

An initiative to provide learners with access to non-accredited training to acquire softer skills that prepare them for work was also shared. The programme, digital badges, is run through a digital platform, Cities of Learning and maps the skills needs of employers and connects learners with learning providers.

Best practice examples of business support programmes delivered by councils

A number of examples of projects being carried out by councils to strengthen business engagement was shared at the roundtable and these are included below:

Derby City Council - Ascend – The council is funding a programme targeted at smaller businesses with ambitions to scale up and have several hundred employees in the future. The programme connects businesses to advisors to assist them, so it is bespoke to the needs of the business.

Worcestershire County Council Enterprising Worcestershire Start Up – This programme offers support to new and early-stage businesses in the region. It offers a variety of support including free start-up masterclasses, business coaching, specialist consultancy support, business membership funding and start-up grants.

Worcestershire County Council Elevate Worcestershire Growth – The programme offers successful applicants an opportunity to gain high quality, specialist business support and is targeted at established SMEs in the region.

Lichfield District start up grant scheme – This scheme offers a one-off grant of up to £3000 for residents who have been made redundant or are currently economically inactive and seeking to start up a business.

Redcar & Cleveland Ambassadors – The programme recruits ambassadors to promote the place and increase money spent in the region by highlighting the benefits of living, visiting and working in Redcar and Cleveland.

LGA support offer and additional resources

The LGA has released guidance for councils in engaging with businesses as well as planning their local economic recovery. The links to the publications are included below:

How well do you know your micro businesses?

Local Economic Recovery Planning

The LGA will be hosting more events including roundtables and webinars as part of our Economic Growth Support offer. For more information on all of our upcoming events and publications on Economic Growth please visit the Economic Growth Support Hub webpage.

For further information about the LGA’s Economic Growth support offer, please email productivity@local.gov.uk