Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) recently won the award for Best Website in the Property Marketing Awards 2017, a tremendous accolade. These awards are very much the domain of the private sector, with sleek marketing campaigns created for high profile buildings and glossy, London-centric schemes. Our entry was the notable exception with our low budget, hard-working, results-driven website.
The council is marketing a package, not a one-off scheme. As a public sector site we have to acknowledge CBC’s generic branding guidelines but must also present a very private sector ‘brand’ in look and feel, to appeal to our national and international audiences. With up to 97% of inward investment searches starting online, the objective was to attract new investment by capitalising on key assets, delivering a step-change in customer service, 24/7 accessibility and place marketing.
So, unusually for a council, this is a tale of sales and marketing. Our investment website is one ‘client facing’ initiative but we apply commercial thinking widely in our ultimate objective – to attract new investment, support some ambitious targets and nurture growth across all sectors. Playing the private sector at its own game is critical if we are to shape our economies around our communities and existing business and sector/cluster needs. Without understanding the requirements of investors, occupiers and business, how can we help them deliver a thriving economy that reflects local and national needs or opportunities?
Businesses told us that the barriers to growth include the economic climate, over regulation and weaknesses in attracting and/or retaining employment supply chains in addition to the perception of the roles of councils often seen as barriers to going business, relocating or investing. The skills gap and a shortage of skilled trades and professional occupations was a further underlying cross sectors and place issue. We knew something had to be done to help accelerate delivery, realise the potential of the area and create the environment for investment to grow.
In January 2016 we established a dedicated enabling team, with the specific brief of facilitating growth and development, bridging the gap between traditional thinking on planning, business support and inward investment within the public sector. Furthermore we put in place a strategic account management system, working with leading businesses to understand their growth needs and opportunities, in much the same way as a corporate sales team would and also set against a clear understanding of the business plan over the next five years. A ‘Top 100’ list of Central Bedfordshire businesses has been identified and each given a named contact to help connect with council services and unlock some of the barriers mentioned above and to build open partnerships.
Alongside this, four key development sectors where identified – namely high performance technologies, AgriFood, transport & advanced logistics and the visitor economy. Private sector-led sounding boards were established. The result is an efficient, market-informed partnership with the council.
Our teams further assist in identifying external funding opportunities for business development, glean the latest business news including new schemes or initiatives and provide expertise that will help local businesses engage with new opportunities or opportunities in the supply chain.
For those organisations wanting to expand or build new premises, we have given them certainty through the implementation of local development orders and planning performance agreements to help accelerate delivery and give market confidence. This has already been effective in several cases.
What have we learned so far? The investment in our website was money well spent and it is already delivering on its objectives. Property searches have increased, businesses have moved to the area or expanded their operations and others have maximised CBC’s business services, all of which are clear and accessible via the website and supported by our customer-facing teams. These include skills training, public protection services, building control and social care. In short, we are becoming enablers, not enforcers.
However, to keep delivering for our customers, whether businesses or residents, we must ensure all internal operations are working swiftly and efficiently through modernisation, digitalisation and agile working. Any council will understand the challenges this creates but they must be met head on.
This approach has helped to secure 70,000 sqm of new commercial floorspace, equating to £3bn in private sector investment in the area and supported the creation of 4,000 new jobs, with major employers either locating to the area, or expanding their business. The website has seen 23,000 visits from all over the world and we have had 426 direct enquiries. The icing on the cake is the recognition we have received for this commercial approach, with eleven Business Growth & Support Fund awards and two further award nominations.
We are proud of what we are achieving. Reviewing how we work and ‘thinking business’ is not only delivering what our employers and investors need but we are also able to reinvest in council services.
Jason Longhurst is director of regeneration and business at Central Bedfordshire Council