Why urban revival is a business issue

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Our high streets, towns and cities may not be the same after the pandemic. But the fear of them dying away is equally unlikely to prove true – as long as business adapts, innovates and collaborates to build stronger, more resilient places where people want to be.

This was the resounding message that came out of the CBI’s first Urban Revival Conference. And a message that needs to be heard – and acted on – if the government’s levelling up agenda is to succeed.

Businesses need to adapt

“The fear was that COVID could mean the end to some of our places,” said Richard Evans, joint Managing Partner at property developer Argent and Chief Executive of the King’s Cross Estate. “But we’re social creatures. We’ve been coming together in cities for thousands of years and the reasons for doing so remain as powerful as ever. Whether that’s social interaction, business, trade or learning.

“The challenge for policy makers and people like us with an interest in these places is to make them as attractive as can be. We can’t rely on people needing to come into the centre, we’ve got to give them a compelling reason to want to come.”  

He called it a “flight to quality” that demanded retail innovation, new types of season tickets on the trains, more and better housing, better green spaces, better events and activities, more inclusivity and less pollution.

Using the new King’s Cross development as an example, he added that when there’s something for everyone and both businesses and people in the community take on a sense of responsibility for an area, you can see the return of civic pride and people respect the investment. “Levels of damage and graffiti are incredibly low,” he explained.  

Evans’ comments were echoed by Chris Gourlay, founder of civic crowdfunding platform Spacehive.com, through which businesses are backing community projects. “Where regeneration is done best is when it’s done with, not at, communities,” he said.  

Businesses need to seize the opportunities

The importance of collaboration was a common thread throughout the conference, but so too was the sense of opportunity.  

As businesses adapt to changes in ways of working and office space requirements, there will be opportunities for firms to get involved in what their towns and cities look like, to do things differently, and to think about how a place, not just an office, can best attract and retain talent.  

Having lived through a “transformative 13 months”, retailers have a chance to build on the trend that has seen shoppers return to their local high street – “because it’s safe, it’s local and they know it”, said Wilko retail director, Chris Ward. “As long as we respond to their needs.”

Theatre, pubs and restaurants will be the superpowers helping to pull people in, added playwright and screenwriter James Graham. These businesses are coming back with “renewed zeal”, building on the new appreciation of community as a precious commodity, agreed Nisha Katona, Founder of Mowgli Street Food. And they’ll also respond to the opportunities as more mixed-use, retail-by-day, entertainment-by-night space opens up.

Businesses need to innovate

It’s not just about the high street. In his speech, CBI Director-General Tony Danker urged firms to collaborate with government and universities to get behind the creation of industrial clusters in every region of the UK.

It means replicating examples like the Oxford-Cambridge Innovation Arc, and efforts in the South West to build on its successful aerospace cluster – which in turn will mean more firms stepping up their spend on R&D.

But Andrew Carter, CEO of Centre for Cities, argued businesses need to do more on innovation take up – or the diffusion of new ideas where the benefits have been proven. The CBI’s Director of Innovation Felicity Burch pointed to the government’s Help to Grow scheme designed to support SMEs to do just this, while Catherine Lewis La Torre, CEO of the British Business Bank, highlighted how easier access to finance could help even out SMEs chances to scale up across the country.

Workforce training and development will be just as important, particularly in areas of the UK that have fallen behind, Carter said. By investing in skills and working in partnership with training establishments, businesses will be instrumental in seizing opportunities around technology and net-zero, for example.

McKinsey’s Jonathan Woetzel added businesses had to lead the way in the shift to lifelong learning. “It has to be done in the workplace, so ultimately it is the responsibility of employers to take on the burden of rethinking their employment contracts of how they are working together with their communities, to enable those people to become more resilient, to embrace those new technological capabilities and to deploy them in sustainability.”

Business can make a difference

The pandemic gives us an opportunity to build back urban spaces stronger and more resilient than ever before, said Lord Bilimoria, in a speech urging a focus on creating healthier, smarter, greener urban spaces.

And as a reminder of how much difference enterprise can make, he pointed back in history to Cadbury’s Bourneville, Rowntree’s New Earswick and Leverhulme’s Port Sunlight. Or more recently, to the Duchy of Cornwall’s Poundbury.

“Entire communities formed around business – with companies that really looked after their workers and their families. And valuing not just functionality but the aesthetics of a built environment. Gardens, and beautiful public spaces. And harmonious design – homes that inspire people, and don’t diminish them. These should all be an inspiration to us.”

“For me the greatest proof of what business can achieve lies in the stories of changed lives, changed communities, changed towns and cities,” said the CBI’s Danker.

“The way that Belfast – my town – has become a hub for cyber security and fintech companies. A city in which today 10,000 people work in digital jobs – something that could hardly be imagined 15 years ago.

“The way that, in Cardiff, the city centre and the old docks have been regenerated through private investment. Turning Cardiff, rightly, into one of the great European capitals. Or the rebirth of Hull – from one of the UK’s poorest cities, following the twin loss of its fishing and shipping industries in the ‘80s – to becoming the UK’s ‘energy estuary’, having attracted more than £3bn of investment over the last decade.

“There is no greater agent for this revival than business,” he concluded. “We now need to turn these examples into a national movement – an urban revival revolution.”

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