Wednesday, 17 December 2008

More support for local business

This year I sat for the first time on the 'Farnborough Business and Community' panel. The Chairman is a very nice man, and included lots of nice people, the lady in North Camp that runs the tobacconist, the chap that runs the sports centre, our local beat officer, a nice chap from Planning and another nice chap from Environmental Health.
However, very nice and polite as they all were, I distinctly left my first couple of meetings wondering what Rushmoor actually does to support front line business in Farnborough and indeed Aldershot. You could equally argue - this is not a town hall job, the town hall aspect is ensure a clean safe environment that will attract businesses and nice homes, shops, leisure and living conditions that will attract skilled people.
We would have to be a particularly bad authority to mess up some of the prizes we have been given. We live in a great area, relatively low density housing, although I shudder at what planning have allowed regards slums in waiting that we call modern flats recently. To put blame where it belongs - we have to thank Mr Prescott for most of that, although we have been too slow in my opinion to address parking ratio's for flats.
We have an excellent blue chip company base that is the envy of many a local authority, with Nokia, CSC, QinetiQ and Tag Aviation to name just a few who reside in the Borough. We must not forget (although heavily depleated now) the Army, who are ressession proof. Sadly we are a garrison village more than a garrison town these days.
The other key gem we have is the Farnborough College, who can offer skill training etc to businesses and employees.
We have been very good at the 'strategic' vision, you know the generic stuff that is duplicated on lots of town hall copiers to 'tick boxes'. I think we have very nice people that want to do the right things, and in general we are getting this right, but I think we could do better, and see two areas worth concentrating on.
1. We need to focus on local, especially when the wolves are gathering at the doors. Let us concentrate on what we are good at - delivering local solutions at a local level tailored to local needs. Supporting our local economy in deed not just in word.
2. We need to work with all agencies as a local authority, and not have any favorites. This also spreads risk and keeps us above any accusation of unfair support for a particular organisation. There are a number of agencies now that are offering free support to companies, now if I, as a local business owner and a councillor, am having difficulty finding exactly what is on offer - somewhere, somehow, something is not working as it should.
Can a local authority really have a great impact on local businesses? No a failing business will fail regardless, and assistance sometimes only prolongs the inevitable closure. But local authorities are able to do a number of positive things to help rather than hinder the development of business. These could include, but are not limited to:
1. Hosting events run by specialist organisations, that offer free services to businesses.
2. Have free pre planning briefs for businesses wishing to expand.
3. Promote skilling up via local educational establishments.
4. Get a reputation for working with companies, not to bend any rules, but have an open and friendly dialogue which looks for solutions rather than obstacles to business challenges.
5. Ensuring we keep all costs to companies and individuals to an absolute minimum.
.. and more
Some of these we are doing, some we are not.
The one frustration with local government is the 'oil tanker' culture. Bad habits can take years to stop, and years for a change in direction. This is the fault of the majority of members and senior officers. Change under the present system takes time, some suggest this is one arguement in favour of directly elected Mayors with cheif executive powers.
Summary: Rushmoor is a good place for business - but some aspects of what the local authority are doing could be improved, run more efficiently and more focused.

2 comments:

Mike Wilson said...

As the director of three businesses I can't fully agree that Rushmoor is such a great place for business.

As you rightly point out and name, there are long-term established businesses here. But, on your drives around the borough have to noticed how many office and commercial units are under occupied or just empty?

A quick drive through Farnborough Business park shows how underdeveloped (rather ironically!) the commercial land is. The demand for commercial space simply isn't there any more.

The business rates are too expensive for small businesses, who share or work out of private properties instead to cut costs.

The traffic infrastructure is a nightmare to work with. This impedes deliveries. I think particularly of the old bed and bath store in Farnborough that struggled to meet orders due to delivery drivers giving up on Farnborough's antiquated road system and aborting their rounds.

What can Rushmoor do?

1. Plan properly. Plan for infrastructure improvements that are commensurate with the plans for population growth.

2. Encourage growth. Here's a suggestion: Lower the per foot council tax, or just abolish it for under used buildings.

3. Improve local policing, CCTV and the like.

4. Environmental health. Need I say more?

There's three, non-wishy-washy points that the council could get on with implementing. I won't hold my breath!

Anonymous said...

What do the businesses in North Camp say about the imposition of car parking charges there? Are any of the businesses better off as a result?

Was any consideration given to making the car park on the south side of lynchford road free and then converting Queens Rd etc into a pedestrian "only" area?

North Camp has the potential to be a vibrant retail area of specialist shops but it seems now more likely to decline.

It seems odd to charge consumers to park AND charge business rates. Consumers might as well go elsewhere where they don't have to pay (e.g. Tescos etc). Businesses then lose custom and business rates paid go down. Net result? Councils more and more dependent on the big superstores who end up having more and more bargaining power...