The pandemic recovery offers a real opportunity to reset the relationship with local businesses.
The pandemic has had a major impact on local economies, particularly for businesses in sectors such as tourism, retail and hospitality.
Central government recovery funding provided a welcome relief as it was swiftly distributed through the channels of various parts of local government.
This has meant that the relationship between councils and their local businesses has not only deepened but also strengthened, and councils have had more direct engagement with more businesses than ever before.
How councils build on this strengthened relationship in the years ahead is an extremely important question and one that we are tackling through research with the LGA.
What is encouraging to hear is that the conversation with business is shifting. It has slowly been moving away from emergency distribution of funding to a more substantial use of local business intelligence in local decisions and future strategy development.
Through our research, we have heard that businesses are becoming more central in setting policy at a local level, and that the evidence gathered during the pandemic is being used well to inform funding bids and emerging strategies.
This high-quality business intelligence is critically important in the future of local decision-making.
In the early part of the research, we heard from councils that are using hyper-local evidence to create a plan to support businesses in the short and medium-term. Examples of this include:
- creating forums to support landlords of managed workspaces vacant due to working from home
- identifying and using the exact issues facing businesses through bids to the Community Renewal Fund
- information campaigns to engage black and minority ethnic (BAME) business leaders
- task and finish groups to identify future perspectives of young entrepreneurs.
All of these examples are encouraging a healthy conversation intended to collectively solve some of the issues of the day.
The research has also found that there has been a different experience reported in relation to working with local partners.
In some areas, there was a strong presence of other supporting organisations working alongside the council. In other places, business support partners were not able to manage the needs of businesses as well, leaving councils to pick up the majority of action required.
In the longer-term, the outcome of the Government’s review of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) will be significant, as will the role of ‘business representative organisations’, as identified in January’s Skills White Paper, to deliver the skills agenda.
Whatever the outcome, securing and sustaining a business voice to inform local policies and decisions will continue to be central to maintaining quality place-shaping and vibrant local economies.
Equally key to this will be the nature of relationships between different types of councils and their constituent businesses. This relationship varies greatly across combined authorities, counties and districts.
Councils are an important ‘anchor’ institution, as their spending power and role as commissioners of goods and services can encourage local social value priorities.
Ensuring local firms are well positioned to pick up these opportunities is key to delivering innovation, local growth and jobs.