The national and local polling contained in this report, supported by the in-depth conversations held with businesses in four major UK cities, reveals businesses to be broadly in favour of more powers being devolved to local governments – particularly when it comes to those powers that relate to the strategic drivers of local growth such as transport, housing and planning.
Equally, more are in favour of increased local tax retention and variation than are against it. And, providing proposals are tied to specific projects where the benefits to the local business community are clear, there is also support for the idea of ‘supplementary taxes’ to provide additional investment in local economies.
Yet there is also clearly a sense that up until now, they have not felt sufficiently consulted. Despite the Government’s devolution agenda being focused on improving the economic performance of UK cities, businesses feel they have not yet had the opportunity to have their voice heard. Throughout the roundtable discussions there was consensus that now is the time to change that and to get more businesses involved in shaping the delivery of devolution on the ground.
Nevertheless, decision-makers face a challenge in consulting ‘business’ effectively in a way that reflects such a varied group without burdening them with endless, sometimes unhelpful, engagements. The businesses we spoke to were clear that there was no singular ‘business voice’ and this was reflected in national polling which showed that small businesses felt the least well represented. Equally decision-makers must be aware that although membership bodies provide useful conduits and valuable insights, they too will struggle to represent the entire business community in any city.
While these factors make consultation more difficult for national and local government, the need to step up efforts to engage the business community will only grow as more cities and regions agree significant devolution deals with the Government. In light of the findings in this report, local and national policymakers should:
- Provide a clear timeline for firms, setting out what is happening and when (where possible), and updating it regularly in order to help business leaders understand when they will be expected to get involved.
- Have one devolution point of contact in the combined authority / lead council for business representatives to speak to as and when questions arise.
- Continue to work closely with local Chambers, representative bodies and LEPs to discuss and agree aspects of the delivery of devolution deals, including business leaders where appropriate in discussions regarding how newly devolved powers will be used to boost economic growth, and specifically what those changes mean for the local business community over the short and medium term.
- Develop and set out a strategy for talking to small businesses in particular, accepting that this agenda will have more relevance for some than others. This could include interfacing with the Federation for Small Businesses, local Business Improvement Districts and other existing networks.
As the findings of this report demonstrate, there is an appetite within the private sector across UK cities to see devolution happen and to become more engaged in it. As we move from discussing deals to delivering on them, now is the time for businesses to play a bigger role in helping to shape what devolution means for their place.