19 October 2022

Investment Zones deserve a fair crack of the whip

By James Palmer

With the tumult in Westminster, it is perhaps inevitable that even more of the Government’s flagship policies will be put on the political chopping block. The rest of ‘Trussonomics’ aside, it would be a real shame if Investment Zones were added to this list.  Unfortunately however, the plan now faces the dual challenge of political instability and a considerable degree of unearned cynicism.

In the classic song Three Lions, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner bemoan the pessimism of pundits and sports fans regarding the England football team, which they are forever convinced will fail because “they’ve seen it all before”. Replace football with politics, and the naysayers unfortunately multiply by the tens of thousands.

Countless UK political commentators today appear so certain that any policy initiative is doomed from the start that they judge there is no point trying anything. There are no new ideas under the sun, after all, and if an idea failed 50 years ago, why bother now?

Indeed, ‘the art of doing nothing’ has become a particularly British talent (or disease) in recent years. Not only have we become willing as a culture to cancel individuals for minor misdemeanours, but we are also now so sure that new ideas will fail, that we instinctively judge it safer not to try.

In an article for the Sunday Times last week, Jon Yeomans and Hannah Al-Othman essentially make the case for doing nothing on the UK economy. They contend that the ‘Investment Zone’ plan will fail because Enterprise Zones failed – and that the Treasury thinks they are too expensive to really take off anyway.

This kind of knee-jerk negativity is characteristic of a media class which too often mistakes easy pessimism for a kind of world-weary wisdom. The reality of Investment Zones, however, is significantly more complicated and promising than the picture painted above.

Enterprise Zones and Development Corporations can and have been remarkable game-changers in the deprived and under-utilised areas where they’ve been trialled. For instance, the Sunday Times piece (to the authors’ credit) mentions Canary Wharf – whose transformation from a disused dock into a world leading trade centre gave the government the confidence to use a similar formula when delivering the 2012 Olympics.

Incidentally, one of the architects of Canary Wharf – Michael Heseltine – once told me that getting the scheme off the ground in the 80s was fraught with the same kind of opposition currently being levelled at investment zones. Lord Heseltine even recalled being told that his “toytown railway” was doomed to failure. In practice, Docklands Light Rail allowed regeneration of a huge area, changing the physical and economic landscape of the capital forever.

Whilst there is no guarantee that investment zones will be a similar success story, surely they at least deserve a fair crack of the whip? My own experience with rural Enterprise Zones in the East of England has taught me that if such zones are created around successful sites, they have the ability to transform local areas for the better.

Tax reductions to allow supply chains to work more closely also have clear benefits and should absolutely be encouraged if we are serious about driving local and national growth. However, simply creating a zone without a destination business can be a recipe for failure, and councils should be aware of this fact when making applications.

A ‘build it and they will come’ policy will not always cut it when dealing with areas facing significant economic challenges. Instead, the model needed in rural regions is that of a main ‘investment zone hub’, linked by multiple successful ‘spokes’ which can extend growth opportunities over a wide area.

Allowing these zones to link together and share the benefits would prevent the unnecessary movement of established companies, many of whom may simply be driven by the promise of tax breaks.

This ‘hub and spoke’ approach would go a long way towards unlocking the potential of investment zones, of which previous efforts (like Enterprise Zones) only scratched the surface. This is the model that my colleagues and I at the Eastern Powerhouse are advocating for – and we are continuing to make the case that the East of England is the ideal trial region to put the plan into practice.

As for the argument that the Treasury doesn’t like Investment Zones because they are too expensive – this is a remarkable and bemusing revelation if true. After all, surely creating business growth is exactly what the Treasury needs; as the more businesses expand, the more tax can be raised.

Governments around the world have used exactly this method to supercharge growth. Some have also provided houses, schools and hospitals to such areas, and given land to businesses for free. I am not suggesting we go quite that far. However, if our international competitors are creating zones that encourage investment, then the UK can afford to do so too.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be a step too far to suggest that in such zones, international companies could be given a corporation tax break for coming to the UK? After all, the Republic of Ireland did something similar a few years ago to great effect. There are no new ideas in politics, indeed.

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James Palmer is former Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and current Chairman of the Eastern Powerhouse, which was set up by ResPublica in March 2022.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.