Time to think local, by Stephen Alambritis

22 Oct 10
As the full impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review unfolds over the weeks and months ahead, localism could get an unexpected boost. Councils must focus on their communities, their staff and local businesses

As the full impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review unfolds over the weeks and months ahead, localism could get a boost in an unexpected way. Internationally, economists warn governments against protectionism, yet many councils might turn to a particular kind of localism – selfishness. And with good reason.

Of course we must have one eye on the national economy because there is a desperate need to deal with the deficit. But I’d argue that we can do that by first focusing on our communities, our staff and our local businesses.

The relationship between small businesses and councils is not always a comfortable one. Too often communication is restricted to enforcement and collecting rents and the business rates. But small businesses are the lifeblood of local economies: we can help each other through the tough times ahead.

It’s time to think local – whether you choose to put the ‘ism’ on the end or not. For every £1 a council spends with a local small business, 70 pence is spent locally. Many of our staff live locally and depend on local businesses; our communities are richer for the diversity that small businesses bring to an area.

We can ask local businesses to help us. For example, we could ask charity shops to be our eyes and ears on our high streets, perhaps giving them the responsibility for monitoring town centre CCTV. After all, they get an 80 per cent rebate on business rates – and many councils even rebate the rest.

We can work with local businesses to let empty space above shops. It will be extra income for them and may offer more affordable accommodation locally. And more people living in our town centres on our high streets can help improve community safety and encourage some businesses such as cafes to stay open later.

As a landlord, we must be understanding of the pressures faced by our business tenants, for example starting lease renewal discussions earlier to allow for more negotiation.

We can do more to help our local businesses in the face of national and international competition. For example, in Merton we have negotiated with a major supermarket so in its stores it advertises the benefits of nearby local shops. I’d like to be able to go further and get supermarkets to offer space inside their stores for local tradespeople.

We all know about parent and teacher and LEA governors in our schools. Well how about employer governors from the ranks of the local business community?

And looking to the future, we should be getting local entrepreneurs visiting our schools, telling our young people that they can be entrepreneurs, they can start their own business – from home if that’s what they want. At the same time, we must create the right environment for small businesses, getting the balance right between housing and employment land.

But could we go further? Why not encourage our staff in some services to turn the service into a social enterprise, effectively becoming new local small businesses? We know they have the skills and the dedication and, importantly the connections with our communities. Let’s see if we can mirror the dynamism of small businesses in a new model of service provision.

Stephen Alambritis is the leader of the London Borough of Merton and also head of public affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses

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