Recent research by the Centre for Cities, which surveyed 2,500 people across the five biggest city-regions due to introduce ‘Metro-Mayors’ in May 2017, questions whether these new posts will have enough power to deliver and makes me worried.
As a man from ‘the North’ and an entrepreneur myself, I can see first hand the need to empower Metro Mayors with the ability to set the agenda in their own cities, particularly around tech infrastructure, skills budgets and business rates. This isn’t just for the sake of businesses within these cities but the UK’s currently thriving entrepreneurial community as a whole.
Having worked closely with entrepreneur hubs around the UK, I can attest that the policy powers enjoyed by London’s elected mayor have proven transformational for the capital’s start-ups, particularly the tech sector. It would be disastrous if a mere fraction of this power were extended to regional peers.
Recently the Queen’s Speech outlined the Digital Economy Bill, promising a right to fast broadband for every household and support for companies expanding broadband infrastructure, aimed at improving connectivity for the nation. While I think that we still have a long way to go even in London, I also know that to make this a reality its requires the power, influence and understanding of a local leader who can stand up to the big communications companies and push the agenda for growing businesses. Giving local Mayors ‘teeth’ in this debate is essential.
Securing talent is a considerable worry for any entrepreneur, and it is therefore worrying that our mayors will seemingly not have authority over skills budget for under-18s. The tech entrepreneurs contributing so much to our economy rely on a steady pipeline of digitally skilled talent, and the new Tier-2 visa restrictions will make overseas recruitment even more difficult. Mayors must be able to assess their own city’s needs and invest appropriately in the next generation’s skillset.
Metro Mayors should also have the authority to reform the antiquated business rate system, providing them with the opportunity to calculate rates based on business growth rather than property value. This would allow mayors to engineer ‘growth hubs’, where entrepreneurs are given relief in the crucial, early stages, then pay their dues during later, successful times. At the very least this would attract a fresh wave of entrepreneurs to Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham – and it could provide a crucial leg-up to our next ‘regional unicorn’.
Looking beyond the politics of the local mayors and the big names throwing their hats into the ring, it is important we remind ourselves what we want them to do. Ensuring they can stand up for growing businesses and make it as easy as possible for them to do business is essential. Lets not waste the opportunity.
By James Layfield, CEO, Central Working and a London Tech Ambassador