by Steve Milligton
Area Based Collaborative Enterprise concerns the ways in which local entrepreneurs join forces and form collectives to stimulate business growth and innovation, and to create a more attractive business environment. A clear example in a UK context would be a Business Improvement District.
The project ABCities is funded by INTERREG, a programme aims to help regional and local government to develop and deliver better policy by creating opportunities for sharing solutions to ensure government investment, innovation and interventions lead to integrated and sustainable impact for people and place, by embedding new guidance and measures within existing policy for area based economic development.
The challenge, therefore, is not necessarily poor policy, but a concern about the mechanisms and techniques used by state institutions to deliver place based policy.
The specific focus of ABCE is on SME competitiveness and the effects of clustering, networks, and creating social capital in the business community in terms generating place-based improvements.
The main activity of the project, therefore, is to create opportunities for interaction between local businesses and other place-based stakeholders within particular spatial contexts, and to share and exchange experiences within a network of European cities, Amsterdam (lead partner), Athens, Manchester, Varaždin and Čakovec (two co-located cities north of Zagreb), and Vilnius. Each local partnership is led by a university working in partnership with the municipality, to share experiences about specific interventions within their cities, which aim to bring about place improvements through local collaboration. The project is running from 2018-22, with a major policy event planned in Manchester for September 2021.
In a UK context, the project taps into wider concerns about local wealth creation. Since the 1970s, many towns and cities in the UK followed an exogenous local economic development model, dependent on inflows of foreign and national direct investment and tourism, whereas indigenous local enterprise has been left unsupported. This has resulted in local economies becoming dominated by systems that extract value from places, in contrast to those that might retain and circulate wealth locally. Back in the 1990s, American economist Ann Markusen pointed to flaw in this model, arguing some places were becoming slippery, where capital and skilled labour might easily flow into a place, but can also easily flow out again. In contrast, Markusen suggests sticky places, places that retain capital and labour, provide a more sustainable model. Whereas as a city like London, might be described as a sticky, elsewhere in the UK places a typically slippy, a structural weakness which is becoming more visible following austerity and the uncertainty created by Brexit.
There is considerable evidence that clusters of small enterprises working in collaborative networks can drive international competitiveness at a local and regional scale, through systems, which also drive local wealth circulation. However, much of this research focuses on the benefits this might bring to individual businesses or specific industrial sectors, whereas the impact of local collaboration on place improvements remains obscure. In addition, efforts to promote new firm formation tend to focus on high-tech SMEs, whereas traditional small businesses are overlooked. This is particularly the case in the retail sector, which is poorly served by local and national policy.
The decline of the high streets and town centres, consequently represent a perfect storm, the spatial manifestation of structural weaknesses in the UK economy, places dominated by global/national brands, poorly supported traditional local SMEs, and an absence of coherent policy interventions. However, there is evidence that local independent traders working in collaboration to collectively restore vitality and viability to particular high streets and town centres, a good example being Bishopthorpe Road in York.
The Manchester part of the ABCE project, therefore, builds on an existing project with the City Council, the Vital and Viable Neighbourhoods Programme, but shifts the focus to local collaboration.
The IPM, therefore, is beginning to construct an audit of local networks and partnerships across 10 Manchester district centres, places where have already installed Springboard footfall counters. By examining the constraints to local partnership development, the project will provide policy guidance for the City as it begins to work on its revised local development framework.
Although at an early stages, the project has revealed and is now supporting an example of good practice, the Withington Village Regeneration Partnership. Located in South Manchester, this small but vibrant district centre has established an effective networks comprising public, social and private sectors. The catalyst for this was the threatened closure of Withington Baths.
The community rallied to save this facility, which is now managed by the community through a social enterprise. The community have not only began the restoration of the baths, but have since added co-working space. Working effectively with the City’s neighbourhood manager, the networks has also set about on securing small grants to fund improvements to the general appearance of the district centre, through a shutter art scheme and pocket park. The network has since expanded to include key local stakeholders, a local cancer research hospital and housing association, which is now enabling the district centre to tackle more ambitious regeneration objectives. The IPM’s work here also reveals the value of the footfall data, which reveals that Withington has a discernible night-time economy, with activity hours stretching beyond the traditional 9-5pm opening hours. Since our workshop in Withington, local traders decided to meet to explore the establishment of an and independent traders association which will complement the work of the Village Partnership. We plan, therefore, to continue to monitor this situation and the impact of any subsequent interventions, to help the City to develop new policy guidance.
The work is important, because as we are revealing, other district centres are not as well positioned as Withington in terms of local place capacities and networking and governance capacities. The project, therefore is supporting Manchester in terms developing a better, evidence-based understanding of the key factors the local authority and its partners can influence to create more vital and viable local centres, a ttransferable toolkit of measures to be applied to different places with different circumstances, and the incorporation of good practice and innovative solutions. The ultimate goal is to support the creation of active partnerships in centres that are able to bring about positive change.