City Bites Podcast: Digital + Small Business

This episode of the City Bites ‘Connections’ series is on the evolving relationship between digital and small business – including how local government is supporting Small & Medium Enterprises or SMEs.

Across the UK, businesses at all scales have shifted from wholesale to consumer sales, or from ‘B2B’ to ‘B2C’, while people at risk of job losses have been urged to ‘pivot’ their careers.

Some of that is working: While many large-scale sectors wilt and the ONS shows 247,000 fewer people working in June-Sept 2020 than 2019, the Centre for Entrepreneurs reports a record 570,000 start-ups to date this year, with 29% year-on-year growth in September alone. Many are tied directly to pandemic-related health products, but digital has at least a promotional and logistics role there, and a much larger role in services.

Small and micro business feature heavily in those figures and have always been an economic force. In 2019, some 5.9m UK SMEs accounted for £2.2tr in turnover, or half the UK total, and 16m jobs, or 60% of the total [Federation of Small Business].

In a Covid context, they range from shops which can’t stay open or sell online through digital agencies embracing work-from-home to the Amazons and Etsy makers whose businesses are thriving in relative terms.

As Covid’s one-year anniversary rolls into view, some of the questions to address about digital and small business include:

  • Equal citizen access – How do we include everyone in emerging economic and connection opportunities (and do that better than we have in the bricks-and-mortar world)? This is one of London’s Recovery priorities, and it appears across the UK as an issue.
  • Equal commercial access – Making sure small, diverse and locally based tech companies get a crack at government work, currently procured in silos and shared among a small number of very big players. This is one of guest Onyeka Onyekwelu’s projects.
  • Integrating digital into organisational strategy as opposed to having it sit “over in IT”. This has a major learning component, especially since platforms and devices proliferate so fast. How do we communicate with colleagues, customers and communities? Who are we reaching and what can we do with commercial, place-based or other data? To paraphrase speaker Joe Mathewson, if doing things online automatically creates a record, we should be able to streamline and share better.
  • Resilience: As guest Alison Partridge points out, start-up and survival aren’t the same thing. Are there [digital?] ways to share more support and guidance so that 2020’s record number of business births is sustained over the long term?
  • Security: of systems, of Intellectual Property, of personal data. This podcast was recorded before the crippling Hackney Council breach so doesn’t address cybersecurity, but with home-based digital companies spreading like wildfire, are we protected enough?
  • Format innovation: Can we make hybrid live/online contact work and be inclusive? [As a corollary, will Zoom and Teams become the PowerPoint of the next decade? A bit crap as an experience, but the default when our learning time is sucked away by.. online meetings?]

Today’s guests deliver or support digital services in a small-business world, and cover the above and more… 

Alison Partridge is Managing Director of OneTech, part of the Capital Enterprise family. For nearly 30 years she’s worked across EU cities to support inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation. In 2018 she founded OneTech with colleagues and members at Capital Enterprise to tackle the lack of diversity in London’s tech start-up ecosystem. Alison’s been at the forefront of Covid impact on the tech sector and responses to it.

“I think we can try and turn this into an opportunity and see digital and tech as a bit of an equaliser: you can access new markets, you can access talent, you can talk to people anywhere in the world. These are things we could do for the last 5, 10 years, but probably haven’t done habitually… But there are still a lot of people who are excluded, so one of the things we’re trying to do is to connect under-represented people with the opportunities in London’s tech start-up ecosystem.” – Alison Partridge

Joe Mathewson is co-founder & Chief Operating Officer of Firefly Learning, a fast-growing EdTech platform for parent engagement and learning continuity. Joe and his business partner created Firefly while doing their GCSEs, when the experience was very close to home. In response to Covid-19, Firefly has offered schools free access to the platform through the end of December.

“Our customers are having to take a much more strategic approach to technology than I think many of them have done before. It’s something that senior leadership teams are engaging with more than ever… I think that’s probably just going to grow from here.” – Joe Mathewson

Onyeka Onyekwelu is Strategic Engagement Manager at the London Office of Technology & Innovation. LOTI helps boroughs collaborate on projects that use the best of digital, data and innovation to improve services and outcomes for Londoners. She’s also worked with the UN Women, Equality & Human Rights Commission and the Bar Associations on access to justice, digitisation of the courts, and equality and diversity. During lockdown, she’s worked with colleagues on digital methods for public engagement.

“[Boroughs] are doing amazing work, but they don’t always know what each other is doing. We’re committed to supporting boroughs to share the knowledge and resources being developed, ensure that they’re aligned with the higher-level missions of the London Recovery Task Force, and that they’re replicable and scalable by others.” – Onyeka Onyekwelu

Listen to the podcast to hear their lively discussion…

Further resources and links

  • Federation of Small Business: Digital Skills Initiative – visit the free resource hub.
    Firefly Learning launches a new Parent Portal on 11th November and is offering free access to its Parent Engagement & Learning Continuity platform through 31st December 2020: find out more here.
  • For surviving remote work in all its guises, check out Bruce Daisley’s excellent Make Work Better newsletter & website. The Nov 4th edition shares the concept of a digital commute…the work/home transition you need, without the armpits.
  • London Office of Technology & Innovation‘s main site, with projects, data & resources is here
  • LOTI ‘Thirty3’ London procurement resource – including council tech contracts – is here.
  • OneTech Entrepreneur & Enterprise Incubator: a 12-week programme to give entrepreneurs skills, opportunities and access to get to the next stage and achieve their goals. Find out more here.

Catch all podcast episodes on the Future of London City Bites page.

Making Equality the New Normal

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted and exacerbated long-term inequalities that permeate almost every aspect of life and work. The built environment sector is no different, with a talent pool that isn’t diverse enough at entry level and narrows to a heavily white, male top tier.

Lockdown provided time to reflect; the George Floyd murder and revitalised Black Lives Matter movement provided impetus. This is the moment to put good will into action, address inequality and deliver lasting change.

At this roundtable, a core of invited guests connected senior change drivers with next-wave leaders. In a truly galvanising session, guests shared insight on the work ahead – for all kinds of under-represented groups ­– and offered sector challenges and personal commitments to make equality the ‘new normal’.

Session video

For useful resources & links, visit the Future of London #LearningFromCrisis event page.

Roundtable participants

  • Lisa Taylor – Director, Coherent Cities (session producer, moderator)
  • Kelly Canterford – Programme Manager, Changing the Face of Property
  • Kate Dodsworth – CEO, Gateway Housing & diversity champion
  • Hasanul Hoque – Operations Director, Camden Town Unlimited & Euston Town BIDs, Camden Collective & Alternative Camden Innovation District
  • Anouk Khan – COO, RE:Women
  • Diane Lightfoot – CEO, Business Disability Forum
  • Leona Menville – Director, Customers & Communities, Inquilab; Co-Chair, Unify (BAME) Network
  • Charlotte Morphet – Principal Planner, LB Waltham Forest; Co-Chair, Women in Planning; Chair, POS NOVUS
  • Onyeka Onyekwelu – Strategic Engagement Manager, London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI)
  • Jahanara Rajkoomar – Director of Community Investment, Metropolitan Thames Valley; Leadership 2025
  • Marina Robertson – Senior Director, NPS Group
  • Akil & Seth Scafe-Smith – Co-founders, RESOLVE Collective
  • Anita Singh – Programme Manager, Turner & Townsend & Member, GM Future Leaders
  • Neil Smith – Inclusive Design Lead, HS2
  • Vicky Thompson – Director of HR, Montagu Evans
  • Becky Utuka – Director, Development & Sales, Gateway Housing; Leadership 2025

City Bites: Online engagement finds its way

City Bites Podcast: ‘Connections’ Ep. 2

“If you had said in March that we were going to plan for a mass digitisation of consultation and that London’s public sector was going to lead that charge, you’d have been thinking it’s a two- to three-year programme, it’s unlimited public funds, there’ll be a couple of catastrophes along the way, but, no, it’s taken everyone maybe six weeks to adapt…It’s a fluid situation but I have been hugely impressed.” – Jenna Goldberg

Local authorities have done a brilliant – some say surprising – job moving community engagement online on the heels of lifesaving health, food and contact support. To find out what’s working, what isn’t, and what may survive the Covid era, Coherent Cities director Lisa Taylor interviewed three people working on different aspects of online engagement:

  • Jenna Goldberg – Director, London Communications Agency
  • Jamal Miah – Community Liaison Advisor, LB Camden (West Kentish Town Estate)
  • Sib Trigg – Architect & Community Organiser, People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH)

All agreed that online consultation on its own is just a substitute for live events, but the debate they had about how it is opening doors v. limiting on-the-day engagement is bound to unfold as we emerge from lockdown.

Listen to the podcast to hear from them directly, and/or visit the Future of London City Bites episode page for tips & resources.

Curb Appeal: Managing Covid-19’s impact on public-private space

Social distancing has been key to reducing Covid-19 transmission, but it’s also been hugely disruptive. As loosening restrictions jostle with public confidence and business risk, what are the implications for urban design and movement, and for business and landlord viability? And can we flex enough to navigate a second wave?

Watch this lively webinar, hosted by RE:Women, to find out:

  • What councils, landlords and planners can do to make the space outside shops & restaurants a pleasant ‘waiting room’
  • What impact retail and F&B occupiers expect on operations and revenue, and what they’re doing about it
  • How area-aware station design for Crossrail and other projects could be impacted – and can help with local recovery.

Speakers:

  • Harbinder Birdi – Senior Partner, Hawkins\Brown
  • Jacqueline Bleicher – Founder/Director, Global Urban Design
  • Ally Reid – Investment Manager, LandSec
  • Lisa Taylor – Director, Coherent Cities (session producer & moderator)


Learning From Crisis: Immediate Economic Response

How can we, as individuals and organisations, support vulnerable groups now to collectively pull out of this “V- or W-shaped” economic dive? How can we start to deliver the re-imagined town centres and local economies we want and not leave people behind?

In the first of a three-part series exploring the local economic response to the Covid-19 crisis, this Future of London webinar invited effective operators leading the Covid response daily to share their experience and perspectives on communities, the creative industries, small business and rough sleepers – vulnerable groups, where the pandemic or the slump to come could be the blow that knocks them down.

FoL Executive Director and Coherent Cities Director Lisa Taylor hosted three great speakers:

  • Nabeel Khan, Director of Enterprise, Jobs & Skills at LB Lambeth, providing insight into the council’s economic scenario planning and priorities;
  • GLA Rough Sleeping Lead David Eastwood, outlining GLA and partner efforts to bring in and care for rough sleepers and the work underway to keep supporting them;
  • Aida Esposito, Tottenham Creative Enterprise Zone co-director and Founder/Director of Creative Thinking, on the pandemic’s threat to the creative sector and on tapping the potential of creative businesses and workers to adapt.

Check out the Future of London post for full resources and other Learning from Crisis events and write-ups.

City Bites: What’s at risk in recovery? Tony Travers & Barbara Brownlee on government roles in economic recovery

City Bites podcast: ‘Connections’ Ep. 2

How can UK government tiers interact usefully for economic recovery, especially in contentious cities like London? What support do local authorities need from national government to adapt to the new normal? And what might out city centres look like when the dust settles?

I asked Barbara Brownlee, City of Westminster Executive Director of Growth, Planning & Housing and LSE Professor Tony Travers for their perspectives in this compelling – and sometimes surprising – first episode of the City Bites “Connections” series with Future f London.

Take-aways

  • Treasury needs councils to avoid financial crisis, partly for economic recovery but also because local authorities are best placed for testing and managing all aspects of Covid response and relationships on the ground. Further, as Brownlee pointed out, being forced into a Section 114 budget-balancing exercise by these extraordinary Covid-19 costs would mean harsh cuts and no room for flexibility or collaboration. Despite increasing bluster, Travers believes we can expect MHCLG to do its best to help keep boroughs afloat.
  • Watch for councils, property companies and partners to start referring to all that vacant office space as “new” commercial or mixed-use space (Travers credits Arup’s Alex Jan with this reframing). Where landlords are amenable and planning authorities can flex, this could be a great way to bring fresh energy to town and city centres as smaller/ newer/ consortium organisations start to afford cheaper floor space.
  • Brownlee does represent a central London authority, but both make the case for not abandoning central cities (in the UK or elsewhere) in favour of sprawl. They also point out that large, historic landlords in city centres, like London’s Great Estates, have the patience – and patient capital – to make sound decisions, “viewing this as a 200-year thing, rather than a 20-month thing”.
  • In economic terms, both are particularly worried about the huge hole in Transport for London and commuter rail revenues – and the impact of that on investment – and about the terrible losses in the cultural sector, for livelihoods, businesses, footfall and export value.
  • Local authorities have limited powers to take direct action like policing risky queues or offering business rates relief, but they do have unique leveraging powers; watch for – or seek – more of this from them.
  • Both are convinced we will never go back to business as usual in terms of how we work, with Brownlee citing much more direct working on rough sleeping issues, and “100%” certainty that council staff and committees will stay at least partly remote and be as or more efficient than in the past.

Catch all City Bites episodes here.

Culture Swap? Public-Private lessons from Covid-19

Through the pandemic, the NHS and parts of government have become incredibly effective, cutting through bureaucracy and calling on partners to care for people fast. Corporate directors have taken pay cuts, shared furlough equitably, and rethought flex-working and wellbeing. Could these – possibly stereotypical – cultural shifts be here to stay?

Speakers were cross-sector senior executives and next-gen leaders from Future of London’s Leaders Plus courses in Manchester and London. This was the first of two (or more!) joint events with RE:Women, and part of FoL’s #LeadingThroughCrisis programme. We explored these questions:

  1. How have public sector leaders managed to cut through the noise to deliver? Can they keep doing it?
  2. What’s been driving private-sector thinking, and can they sustain this more ‘public sector’ culture?
  3. What and how can public and private sector leaders learn from each other?

Concept, co-production & promotion, chairing – Lisa Taylor

Culture Swap? Public/Private Sector Learning from Crisis

Funding public projects in chaotic times

This post also appears at Future of London (my sometime other hat). You can find links to key FoL research below.

This post updates some of the findings in FoL’s Paying for Public Projects briefing, the product of three late-2019 roundtables and further research by 2016-20 Head of Knowledge Amanda Robinson. The programme was supported by Montagu Evans, Poly Group and Lewis Silkin.

Get ready to flex. Over the last 10 years, housing, infrastructure and regeneration delivery has been moulded by austerity and political flux; all sectors responded as well as they could. In the last three years, add the tragedy and deep impacts of Grenfell; climate declarations & court decisions; Brexit (remember that?); and now Covid-19, with its awful death toll, its policy and fiscal upheaval, and its economic ravages.

London’s incandescent glow was also starting to fade a bit before the pandemic, with medium-term value growth in the housing market forecast well below other regions and a cooler reception from central government as part of regional ‘levelling up’. That may seem fair in a national context, but it doesn’t help get projects funded.

Through it all, public project leads from all sectors have had to secure finance for upfront costs and funding for operations and maintenance. Budget cuts and housing policy were already pushing the public sector to risk more via joint ventures and council building programmes. Housing associations – partly in response to grant cuts and rent caps – reviewed activity, assets and tenure, embraced shared ownership; merged and morphed; and ventured into modular construction.

For councils in particular, finance has been a rollercoaster: removing the cap on Housing Revenue Account borrowing freed their aspirations; a year later, the 1% hike in Public Works Loan Board interest rates – partly in shock (…) at borrowing levels – slapped the curb back on and sent projects across the country reeling.

We will also lose EU funding – the Structural & Investment Fund alone is worth £5.3bn to England – but the replacement UK Shared Prosperity Fund is not yet defined and could be eroded by the flood of Covid-19 emergency spending.

To assemble finance and funding packages (and critical support), organisations of all kinds have been partnering more – from multinational masterplan partnerships to regional and local projects relying as much on social as on financial capital.

The fitness of other options, including municipal bonds, institutional investment and bank loans, will become clearer over the coming 6-12 months as the UK emerges from lockdown and assesses the economic damage.

Unfortunately, there’s a constant through all of this: a shortage of skills, capacity and understanding.

Whatever the tools, public project leads – especially at councils – can lack expertise, experience or just the time and headcount for effective funding and finance. Across the table, many investor and development partners still don’t understand the political or process realities of public delivery. Housing associations have been able to hire – though watch for the pandemic’s budget impact – but are increasingly challenged on ‘mission’. Having cash doesn’t mean the pressure is off.

Paying for Public Projects report

Early in 2020, Future of London combined its own research on the above with insight gained from three senior roundtables to produce a briefing on trends, risks and opportunities: Paying for Public Projects.

Supported by partners Montagu Evans, Poly Group and Lewis Silkin, the programme was designed to build public sector knowledge of funding sources and to help delivery teams and funders appreciate each other’s drivers and constraints. Covid fallout may shift the dial on best-fit funding, but the principles hold true.

The report provides cases and resources on trends including:

  • Investment shifting from inner to outer London. From 2015/16 to 2018/19, housing starts in inner London dropped by 57% while outer London marginally increased[1].
  • Investors attracted to assets offering revenue-generating potential and longer-term capital gains[2].
  • Climate issues affecting investor attitudes. Some are divesting from fossil fuels and applying ‘temperature scores’ to grade their portfolios[3]. Others heard the Court of Appeal decision against Heathrow expansion with trepidation. It’s under appeal, but it was a marker.

“Montagu Evans was delighted to support this programme,” writes partner Oliver Maury. “In the context of Covid-19 and its impact on society, our ability to share knowledge and experiences, in this case in relation to the funding of public projects, is more important than ever. As society turns its attention towards the recovery phase, we see organisations like ourselves and Future of London having an important part to play.”

So how can public project leads respond now?

There are still opportunities for public project funding – some perhaps growing as priorities shift…

  • A stronger emphasis on placemaking has been creating more resilient neighbourhoods that build on local identity and respond to local need. This strategic approach to regeneration demonstrates public sector leadership, which in turn inspires investor confidence. What happens now, as battered small businesses struggle to recover or leave shops vacant, is critical – council and landlord actions and attitudes are key to sustainability in every sense.
  • Emphasising – and clearly defining! – social & environmental value are likely to become more of a factor, as are explicit community support and mandates such as estate regeneration ballots. Because of their responsibility to communities, public-sector organisations are more likely to call for projects that maximise these values – and attract the growing number of investors with similar ambitions (viz the rise of Environmental, Social & Governance or ESG investing).
  • Good asset management is linked to both of the above. Rather than selling off, local authorities and housing associations are using mechanisms like income strips[4] to retain control of assets and explore income-generating opportunities as landlords. Again, they need the skills to do this well and the resources to scan the horizon for risks and opportunities post-Covid.
  • In London, engage with the Mayor’s Good Growth theme, with funds and support for projects offering the above and/or citizen engagement and diversified local economies.
  • Look to outer boroughs: There was already a huge amount to do in Outer London ­– and outside the centres of most UK city-regions – as town centres and high streets struggled to evolve. There will be ten times more to do now that they risk being hollowed out – and there will be public and private money ready to invest. What is brought back or built will be critical.
  • “Be shovel-ready”: This from a Leaders Plus candidate in Greater Manchester, but applicable anywhere. The UK will emerge and central government – from Homes England to the Department for Transport – will spend to help rebuild the economy. Moving ahead with deals, design, planning, consultation and procurement will help capable entities stand out when those initiatives kick in.

How do we look further ahead?

Scan. Listen. Learn. Collaborate. Flex.

Stability is never permanent, and the funding landscape will continue to shift. A key takeaway from the last 10 years was that local authorities must be more resilient when it comes to economic shocks. A key takeaway from the last two months is that central government will spend in a crisis. It remains to be seen whether that means a revolution in fiscal policy – with a return to serious housing and care funding, for example – or it means the cost of repayment will drive councils further into the red. What can we do to prepare?

Scan: Public project leads need to understand what funding sources are available, which are emerging, which are safe, and who’s using what. Carve out time for your team to scan good publications – or commission summaries if you have the budget. Room 151 is good.

Listen: Talk with colleagues beyond your organisation, via Future of London, professional groups and live or online networking events. Mentoring and board service across sectors or disciplines are great ways to do this.

Learn: Take courses, read the FT, Economist or HBR, listen to brain-stretching podcasts. Look at successes and failures and go beyond the gossip to what actually happened. Take your CFO for a coffee and ask how things work!

Collaborate: Work with each other. Share knowledge. Share people via secondments. Try using consortia once in a while to keep things fresh. Do a project or have a meeting with a competitor.

Flex: Doing the above, using tools like Future of London’s report and wider network – and having trusted outside help where warranted – can give public sector officers the confidence to take on risk and make fresh decisions. At the same time, those practices can help savvy private-sector operators understand partners and clients better, and by extension help repair public trust in the development and regeneration process.

FoL’s Paying for Public Projects programme brought together cross-sector development, housing, regeneration and funding partners to help build mutual understanding. In 2020, FoL is set to launch a new training programme for public project managers. These courses will be designed to help practitioners enhance their commercial skills by learning about viability, asset management, contracts and negotiation. Find out more here, or contact FoL Chief Executive Nicola Mathers at nicola@futureoflondon.org.uk.

Download the full Paying for Public Projects report here.

Get involved with Future of London’s useful work and excellent 4,600-strong network here.


Footnotes

  1. MHCLG Table 253: permanent dwellings started and completed, by tenure and district. Inner/outer London definitions follow those used in the London Plan. Some figures imputed by MHCLG in the data table. bit.ly/32d7gyj
  2. Hugo James. “The rise of long income property as an asset class,” 15 Jan 2020. www.investmenteurope.net/opinion/4009153/rise-long-income-property-asset-class
  3. Simon Jessop, Matthew Green; Reuters. “Climate change pushes investors to take their temperature,” 20 Jan 2010. reut.rs/2V9PFFU
  4. Clive Pearce. “Freeths Real Estate Law Blog: Income Strip Leases,” 5 Sep 2019. www.freeths.co.uk/2019/09/05/income-strip-leases/