New supersize Enterprise Zone to attract international investment

Norwich Research Park. Picture submitted

Norwich Research Park. Picture submitted - Credit: Archant

The Chancellor has announced plans to rapidly expand the Enterprise Zone scheme. Business editor Ben Woods takes a closer look at what the announcement will mean for Norfolk and Suffolk.

If there was ever a darling of the Conservatives long-term economic plan, it is the Enterprise Zone (EZ).

The scheme has been a key tool for the government in their efforts to steer the UK economy towards a greater emphasis on highly-skilled jobs, a smaller state and increased investment in infrastructure and growth.

Since its inception in 2012, the EZ scheme has helped 540 businesses, created 19,000 jobs and attracted £2.2bn worth of private sector cash.

And while it may not have had a profound impact on government efforts to diversify the economy away from The City and the dominant services sector, it has been a significant force when it comes to attracting foreign investment.

It comes as little surprise then that when George Osborne announced further efforts to boost business in his Autumn Statement, it was the EZ scheme that he chose to bolster.

While the economic fillips for business maybe the same – firms can still tap into the benefits of discounted business rates, superfast broadband and simplified planning rules – the areas have been vastly expanded.

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Not only has East Anglia been told it can increase the size of the Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft Enterprise Zone – providing space for a further 30 business and the possibility of another 1,219 jobs – but it has also been given the green light to create a new supersize zone encompassing large swathes of Norfolk and Suffolk.

In its entirety, the new zone will consist of ten sites spread across Norwich, Ipswich, rural areas and small towns, including Norwich Research Park, Scottow Enterprise Park in Coltishall, Egmere Business Zone at Wells-Next-The-Sea and Nar Ouse Business Park at King's Lynn.

If it meets its aspirations, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership expects the site to create 18,500 jobs in 25 years, including 5,000 jobs by 2021.

But how easy will it be to realise these economic ambitions over such a large area?

The Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft Enterprise Zone has been one of the most successful in the country. In September last year the LEP revealed that while other sites were revising jobs targets downwards, it was on course to meet its target of 1,500 jobs and £20m of investment by May 2015.

Part of its success comes from the clarity of its message. The EZ not only used the business rates and relaxed planning rules to attract energy sector firms, but plays on the towns' historic links with the oil and gas industry and its wider cluster of energy sector businesses.

It easy to see how this can be replicated for the likes of the Norwich Research Park within the new zone. Its long-standing reputation as a centre for life sciences and innovation – coupled with the EZ business benefits – is a compelling advert for attracting international businesses which may have set their stall on more expensive commercial space in Cambridge.

But what about the new business parks within the East Anglia EZ, or those which are not affiliated with a specific sector? How do they get their message heard over other – more established – areas within the East Anglia-wide enterprise zone? And who decides which business park takes priority when the international companies comes knocking?

Chris Starkie, managing director of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, said the LEP will take calls from businesses looking to move into the region's enterprise zones, as well as taking responsibility for ensuring each business park sees an increase in economic activity.

He believes keeping a close dialogue with the region's local authorities will help match the right businesses to right area, while making sure each business park get its fair share of economic opportunity.

'Some [areas within the new enterprise zone] will proceed rapidly and they are close to market, whereas some are a little bit further from market,' he said.

'Part of our job will be to make sure that there is activity on all of the sites.'

He added: 'It is a partnership between the local areas and the LEP. The local areas that know the land and have awareness and knowledge of the site, and the LEP which will offer promotions through the enterprise zone badge.'

In the round, it can only be beneficial to the local economy that more industrial areas within Norfolk and Suffolk have access to incentives when attracting businesses.

It also allows the government to encourage more local authorities to think like businesses, not just by being more active when attracting inward investment, but being more aware that they are competing with other regions. This, of course, will be compounded further when some councils are given the power to set their own business rates in the coming months.

But Mr Starkie believes the power of the Enterprise Zone does not come from its ability to stoke up competition within the domestic market, but its power to forge connections on the international stage.

According to Mr Starkie, the creation of a supersize enterprise zone means East Anglia now has a more compelling story to tell when international businesses are visiting British embassies and making a choice between the UK, Europe or Asia.

He added: 'We have shown through the enterprise zones that we have been able to speed up development through greater support from local authorities in terms of investment in the sites.

'We can talk about competing with Birmingham, London and Manchester, but the companies we want to attract are in the global market place.

'It is beyond the days of we want to be better than Cambridge of Peterborough, but it is about what is the package we can offer to attract global investment.'