Peter Box: How Wakefield has become an economic powerhouse

THE role of modern local government is about more than delivering traditional public services, it is also about working with partners and business to drive economic growth and success.

On becoming the leader of Wakefield Council, I realised that to achieve economic growth, and improve the lives of residents, we had to make sure we were in touch with the needs of the business community. This meant pro- actively bringing inward investment, attracting large companies and creating an innovative environment where small to medium-sized businesses could flourish.

We were pleased to be named as ‘Local Authority of the Year’ at the Insider Yorkshire Property Industry Awards by the property and development industry. The award recognised our work to support development, drive growth and aid commercial operators to complete developments across all sectors.

The roots of our success can be traced back over many years. At the time we were losing our traditional industries and needed to lay new foundations to build future success and prosperity.

We took on the challenge of regenerating areas of the district where these traditional industries had come to an end. However, we knew from the start we couldn’t do it on our own. Our belief and commitment to economic growth helped us to win the trust and respect of businesses looking to invest in the district.

In 2009, the financial crisis threatened the completion of the Trinity Walk development in Wakefield city centre. This would have been a devastating blow to the district. I’m proud that our involvement, in actively brokering a deal, meant the development was completed as planned. This isn’t a one-off example, the council also played a key role in the redevelopment of Rutland Mills and Merchant Gate, to name just two.

So, what have we been doing differently? For me it’s about the personal touch, getting the right people and support in place and treating businesses like individuals.

This commitment comes from both the chief executive and I who regularly meet with business leaders to ensure the private sector isn’t something that exists independently of the council, and means that we have our finger on the pulse of their needs.

Organisations that choose to do business with us can expect dedicated support from a key officer whose role it is to navigate their way through council procedures and connect businesses with the expert advice they need, be it from planning or finance.

I mentioned earlier that we’ve been working with big businesses, but we’re equally supportive of small to medium-sized companies. Our business support team work pro actively with SMEs to provide strategic advice and practical guidance to give new businesses every chance of success in the district.

We are very supportive of Wakefield Business Week, which is proving a huge success and is helping to raise the profile of the district and its strong economy as well as providing a useful forum for business to network and share ideas.

Another achievement is our Wakefield First Bondholder Scheme. This is a business membership scheme that re-invests 100 per cent of its membership fee back into the marketing of our distric.

We’re confident that our success speaks for itself. There have been a number of major regeneration projects for the district, against the odds of the economic downturn, including the creation of The Hepworth Wakefield, which opened in 2011. This has raised our international profile by encouraging hundreds of thousands of visitors to come into Wakefield, spend money and boost business.

More recently the opening of the redeveloped Kirkgate Railway Station in Wakefield means that, along with Wakefield Westgate, we have excellent connectivity to our neighbouring cities and to London.

In the last financial year alone we secured £207m of private sector investment – significantly more than our annual target of £150m, which created over 900 jobs in the district. We also secured a £1.1m in grant offers from the Leeds City Region Business Growth Programme, leveraging £54.7m of private sector investment.

Recent independent figures have backed up our success. We have one of the fastest growing GVA (gross value added) rates, which puts us ahead of some of the biggest cities in the region including Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester.

The district is a great place to do business – and I’m proud we have an economy worth £6.47bn, making it the 30th largest in the UK.

There is no doubt that our success to date has made us one of the places to do business in the region. Equally, the importance of our wider economic footprint, through close collaboration at a Leeds City Region level, cannot be underestimated. Our plan is clear; to work to unlock the City Region’s immense potential and become the growth engine for the North – and the nation. With more affordable housing and better rail connectivity, integrated local transport and high-speed broadband for all, we will attract the next generation of jobs to inspire prosperity and ensure growth is felt across the whole City Region.

These are challenging and changing times for local government but this will not deter our commitment to driving forward our ambitions for growth. We’re also working hard with partners to make sure that young people have the right skills and opportunities to realise their ambitions in the district.

The business sector will continue to evolve and change, but I’m confident we’re in the best position possible to anticipate these changes and tailor our support. There is always more to do, but we have the appetite, drive and ambition to make Wakefield a place where people want to live, work and do business.

Peter Box is the leader of Wakefield Council.