What’s holding fast-growing Norwich back?
08:58 08 March 2016
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Norwich’s poor transport and skills and housing shortages are being overlooked by Westminster because its economy continues to thrive.
The Centre for Cities – a respected think tank – said future growth could be thwarted and businesses could relocate if the government does not address the issues.
It found that national policy and debate has focused on the so-called “northern powerhouse” and bigger “core” cities, at the expense of the smaller fast-growing cities such as Norwich.
Chris Starkie, managing director of business and council-led New Anglia local enterprise partnership, said the report provided further evidence that government should not just focus on the big cities, but the crucial role that cities such as Norwich and Cambridge played in creating high value jobs and increasing productivity and growth for UK plc.
“The message is simple, invest in us and we will deliver,” he added.
But the government insisted it did recognise the vital role played by growing cities across the country in boosting growth, building new homes and creating a balanced economy, claiming “city deals” in Norwich and Cambridge gave the cities the opportunity to identify the tools to drive economic growth.
“We are in active discussions with many places, including the growing cities highlighted in this report, about devolving the powers they need to build on their success.”
Leaders from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are currently locked in talks with the Treasury over a potential £1bn deal to hand over power, including over transport, housing and skills.
Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council, said he was pleased to see Norwich was being recognised as a prosperous city, with high levels of business entrepreneurialism and innovation, as well as being a great place to live and work.
“Against a backdrop of cuts enforced by national government, we are investing in the city by supporting local businesses to create well-paid jobs, promoting the living wage and building the infrastructure required to reduce inequality between different parts of the city.”
The report, which also looked in-depth at the challenges facing Cambridge, Oxford, Milton Keynes, and Swindon, found that workers in Norwich were more productive than the average and also contributed more to Treasury coffers per head than those in “northern powerhouse” cities such as Manchester and Birmingham.
Norwich has an employment rate of 75.5pc, compared to the UK average of 73pc, and is also among the top UK cities for the number of patents granted locally, and its level of high-skilled private sector jobs.
But the report said housing was an increasing problem for the so-called “fast growth cities”, which was proving a major barrier to recruiting and retaining workers.
The think tank said the cities should be given more borrowing powers to allow them to provide more of the affordable housing they need.
Mr Waters said: “A strong mixed housing tenure across the city is one of the key drivers of sustainable economic growth. The report highlights the need to build new council homes using income from council rents, which we have been doing in recent years to address the shortage of genuinely affordable housing in the city. Our ambitions to deliver on new council homes, a strong role in skills training and better transport links have formed a major part of devolution discussions with the government.”
The report also warns that government funding for transport infrastructure was too short term to enable the Fast Growth Cities to address this issue, and calls for longer-term funding commitments, like the ones available to northern powerhouse cities such as Manchester and Sheffield.
It said cities were facing skills shortages with Norwich recording a lower than average proportion of people with degree equivalent qualifications.
Alexandra Jones, chief executive of Centre for Cities, said: “The government’s devolution agenda has understandably focused on boosting growth in some of the UK’s biggest city economies, many of which are punching below their weight economically. However, for the government to realise its ambitions of building a more productive and higher-wage economy across the country, it’s crucial that it does not overlook the challenges facing Norwich and other ‘fast growth’ cities, which are among the most economically vibrant and innovative places in the UK.”
“For these cities to continue to grow, it’s vital that they receive the kind of tailored policy support the government is putting in place for cities like Greater Manchester and Sheffield.
“It’s also important that any devolution deals involving the ‘fast growth’ cities respond to the specific obstacles and opportunities they face. If they are included in wider regional deals, those agreements should retain a strong urban focus, to make the most of the economic characteristics and strengths of these cities. This should be a key consideration for the government as it extends its devolution agenda in the coming years.”
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