Special report: Council launches new strategy to boost Bury St Edmunds business
12:51 17 February 2014
The top 100 employers in west Suffolk are set to be visited by council chiefs in a major new drive to boost business and links with the public sector.
St Edmundsbury Borough Council, in partnership with Forest Heath District Council, has launched its new West Suffolk Six Point Plan for Jobs and Growth.
And the move has already been welcomed in the area, as Andrew Denny, president of the Bury St Edmunds Chamber of Commerce and Industry, explained.
“I actually think the local authority are far more sympathetic and aware of the needs of business than the vast majority of other local authorities, but there are always more things they can do,” he said.
Councillor Alaric Pugh, who has now served almost a year as St Edmundsbury’s portfolio-holder for economic growth, hopes to address the gaps.
He said: “We’ve recognised that one of the things we haven’t been so good at in the past is going out there and talking to our businesses, showing them they’re important to the future of the area and they’re responsible for delivering our prosperity.
“We want to be championing their concerns, offering them all the help we can to deliver a far more prosperous future.”
And Mr Pugh has a strategy to back up his claims. The council want to visit west Suffolk’s top 100 employers, as well as all the area’s industrial estates.
A central record of businesses will be kept for the first time; procurement opportunities in the public sector will be pushed to local companies, and the council’s West Suffolk Business Forum (WSBF) hopes to become a hub for the various networking events dotted around the region.
The aspiration is to directly engage with at least 50 businesses a year, as well as creating 120 new jobs and 10 new businesses in the area over the next two years.
This ambition was shared with business people at the first WSBF last month, to a generally positive response.
Our Bury St Edmunds chief executive Mark Cordell said: “If they are able to achieve this, then that can only be a good thing for west Suffolk.
“I welcome the opportunity to work closely with the economic development team to ensure that Bury continues to be a thriving centre for visitors, residents and businesses alike.”
Mr Denny also declared the future bright for Bury, with its proximity to Cambridge, the coming Magna Carta celebrations and thriving retail sector leaving it well placed to capitalise on the small signs of economic recovery.
As for St Edmundsbury, he said: “The most significant thing for them is the fact they recognise the importance that enterprise and business has on the local economy.
“They have a role to play in it, rather than just seeing local business as a source of revenue. One of the most important things they can do is draw down funding from all the various disparate and hard-to-reach sources of grant funding – that would be a success for them.”
West Suffolk’s burgeoning relationship with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) – regional bodies that are increasingly the key with which to unlock big money – could therefore prove the most crucial of all.
The doubling-up of St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath not only puts Newmarket and Mildenhall in the same pot as Bury and Haverhill, but also brings West Suffolk into the catchment area of two LEPs – New Anglia, and Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough (GCGP).
The reasons for courting the LEPs are obvious – between them, the pair will soon control more than £165million of public money, to be assigned throughout their region through strategic economic plans.
Graeme Nix, chief executive of GCGP, said: “We are pleased to see that West Suffolk’s six-point to create jobs and growth aligns with many of our LEP priorities.
“Having already delivered some successful projects in west Suffolk, including helping to establish infrastructure works at Haverhill Research Park and launching an Agri-Tech Grants scheme, we look forward to extending this work to help deliver new jobs and economic growth across west Suffolk and beyond.”
Andy Wood OBE, chairman of Norfolk and Suffolk-covering New Anglia, was also optimistic, saying: “The strength of the economy in west Suffolk is vital to the economy of the region. West Suffolk has a vibrant business community, strong sectors, but also the potential for growth.
“This plan provides an important focus, which is closely aligned to our strategic economic plan.”
Mr Pugh calls LEPs “the most effective” of more than 30 incarnations for assigning regional funding since the 1970s, with the desire for collaboration indicative of the wider financial challenges facing local authorities.
St Edmundsbury has been no stranger to investment in recent times, splashing millions on the Arc shopping centre in Bury and the Ehringshausen Way leisure complex in Haverhill, but its emphasis on partnerships is part of a noticeable shift toward savvier commercial thinking.
As West Suffolk aims to streamline its ever-shrinking funding pot, it is telling that economic growth, as well as the potential money-maker of housing, were included as two of three priorities in its soon-to-be-adopted strategic outlook.
Mr Pugh said: “I don’t think people realise the value of housing growth to the wider economy. We’ve got to make sure we can deliver the economic conditions that are appropriate to the housing growth.
“There’s a lot of that in Vision 2031. It’s one of the first joined-up local plans in the country.
“A lot of development plans have only been about housing – Vision 2031 has taken a holistic view about what the people that live here want over the next 20 to 30 years.
“These are early days, and we’re only taking our first steps, but they’re all very constructive ones.”