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Liverpool Economic Forum 2012

May 16, 2012

The Liverpool Economic Forum 2012, hosted on 15 May at Radisson Blu Hotel by North West Business Insider, offered important pointers to the future.  Positively, a lot now hinges on new City Major Joe Anderson’s delivering his pledges to bring investment, cruise liners and much else to Liverpool. More problematically, whilst all agree the city now punches above its weight, concerns remain about whether Liverpool can deliver a coherent offer to potential investors. And still discussion of real sustainability and inclusion is absent.

The big question which the Liverpool Economic Forum 2012 sought to address was:  How can Liverpool get into the fast stream?

Discussion was collegial and constructive, but the message, whilst certainly more focused and forward looking than hitherto, remains somewhat mixed.

Public and private sectors
It is probably fruitless to identify a ‘problem’ in the absolute number of people employed by the public sector in Liverpool – that sector includes a significant proportion of the high-skills jobs in the city, and is not especially larger than in other locations – but a focus on how to improve the ratio of public-to-private sector employment is useful. Without a significant mass of public sector occupations Liverpool would have greater unemployment and fewer decent services; but with a larger private sector as balance, the city’s economic health would be improved.

One-stop shop for investors?
That said, there are still too many city bodies all trying to make the case to prospective investors, and there’s a way to go before an easily identified one-stop shop is established – in part because of the historical plethora of such organisations, and in part because of the introduction of the new central government imposed LEP (local enterprise partnership) and the challenges that has brought. Where is the focus? And is the offer at city or sub-regional level?

One interesting general observation was that the private sector ‘runs faster’ than the public sector, and the latter must ‘catch up’. Whether this is always actually the case, or in every instance a required improvement, was not explored. Perhaps it needs to be; as should also be the claim that competition ‘is not regional, it’s global’… What, always?  And is there never a case for collaboration?

Worries for right now
More immediately, concerns remain about the failure to secure one of the new green investment banks for Liverpool, and about problems (after lack of funding success in the first tranche of awards) around the quality of the city’s broadband provision.  Likewise, business rates on unoccupied premises are seen as a damaging and critical issue from the vantage point of investors.

How, commentators asked, should Liverpool respond to the ‘hard place’ in which it’s said it finds itself, between the Golden Triangle to the south, and apparently perceived investment honey pots of Wales, Scotland and… Daresbury? How must it relate to the neighbouring, and we should note overlapping, economy of Manchester?  – though some of us it might be said would like to see these last two as friends rather than foes.

How can Liverpool best benefit from continued investment in bio-sciences? (Questions about the desirability, or effective management, of cluster-dependency were not explored.)

And how, without delay, can Liverpool connect its city centre to Edge Lane and Pall Mall developments – the Hope Street Quarter wasn’t mentioned – and secure effective connection between the partners on each side of the River Mersey to the massive ambitions of Wirral Waters?    How, also as a matter of urgency, can the infrastructure of Liverpool be developed as befits a cruise liner-fit port city, to serve inward and onward travel?

The ambition, then, is without doubt.  In just an hour the Business Insider panel identified a critical range of opportunities and challenges in the immediate and medium term for the economic development of the City of Liverpool.  The intent to face and meet the challenge of ‘getting Liverpool into the fast stream’ is evident.

And yet…  and yet….   Is that it then? Is that all?

Quite rightly, Liverpool’s civic and business leaders want to position their city to serve its people well; and of course they must talk the talk of both the community and the wider entrepreneurial communities.  Growth, jobs and opportunities are the vocabulary which city leaders must employ.

Nonetheless, those baby elephants under the Town Hall table are perhaps becoming restless.  How long before they fill the room?

At the Liverpool Economic Forum 2013 it would be good to see evidence of a new consensus that

  • no public forum, however earnest and collaborative, should comprise simply white men in their middle years;
  • there are things no city can achieve without full infrastructural support and enablement from central government: Liverpool will know by next year whether the current national administration is prepared to provide required facilitation;
  • the odd reference to low carbon and green banks helps, but it’s nowhere near enough; and ‘growth’ alone will not resolve tomorrow’s problems.

Alongside a proper acknowledgement of resource depletion and climate change there’s also a pressing need for change at every level in the climate of the political and economic debate itself.

Fundamental shifts
Ambition to move into the fast stream is admirable, but only if that stream is flowing in the right direction.

Here is the real, enduring conundrum for Liverpool’s city leaders, civic and business.

Can the city adapt constructively and positively to the shifts in fundamental realities which it is about to encounter?  Can Liverpool’s leaders bring about essential improvements in the lives of those who have so far missed out, whilst also taking everyone together to a position of strength from which to face the very different, very C21st challenges to come?

If those at the helm got ahead of the game in these terms, Liverpool really would be placed to face the future with confidence.

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