Power Panel discussion including entrepreneurs and professionals organised by Downtown in Business finds frustration at issues that have been raised repeatedly in the past. Tony McDonough reports
Confusion over who oversees inward investment and a painfully slow planning process are holding back Liverpool city region’s economy, local business leaders say.
Despite calls over several years for a streamlining of the process for handling inward investment there remains a lack of clarity over which bodies are responsible for what across Merseyside.
That was the overwhelming view put forward by a panel of business people at a discussion in Liverpool city centre hosted by business lobby and members group Downtown in Business (DIB).
It was the latest in the organisation’s series of Power Panels where the key issues on business and the economy are discussed. The events are held under Chatham House rules, which means we can report what was said, but not who said it, offering those present the freedom to speak frankly.
Barriers to growth
This week’s discussion was held at the offices of insurance business Marsh at 4 St Paul’s Square and was themed around the property sector. However, the discussion quickly widened out to address the barriers to the city region’s economic growth.
A complaint from business for many years has been around there being too many agencies overseeing economic development and inward investment – as well as the local authorities we have the Liverpool City Region LEP, Liverpool Vision, Invest Liverpool and now the Combined Authority, headed by Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram.
One participant at the event said: “We have all these bodies and the question is ‘who does what?’. We have the LEP and the Combined Authority and so who is in charge?”
Comparisons with Manchester were mentioned more than once and it was observed how well the 10 local authorities of Greater Manchester appeared to be much more in harmony than the six in the Liverpool city region.
One speaker offered an historical perspective, saying: “After Margaret Thatcher abolished the county councils of Merseyside and Greater Manchester in 1986, the councils in Greater Manchester continued to work closely together.
“But in Merseyside there has always been tensions between the local authorities. That is changing now but that change is very recent. There are large areas of the city region that are very deprived – Knowsley in particular.
“And it is the people in those areas we have to help with the right investment into skills and infrastructure and we need a joined-up plan.”
Problems in the planning system in Merseyside was an issue for a number of people on the panel. It was claimed a shortage of staff within Liverpool City Council’s planning department was making the process painfully slow. There was also criticism of too much bureaucracy in Wirral.
One panel member talked about a much more positive experience in Chester, saying: “There was a development in Chester and I have to say the council there bent over backwards to help get the job done. In contrast, on a similar development in Wirral there was so much red tape and delay the client almost lost patience and walked away – although we did get it done in the end.”
Another property professional talked about frustration at trying to bring forward schemes in Liverpool’s much-trumpeted Ten Streets development area in the northern docklands.
He said: “Things are being held up because of how difficult it is to get information out of the planning department. It is a real problem in terms of attracting investors because they will just end up losing patience and going elsewhere.”
Another added: “If we had enough staff in the city council planning department we would have cranes all over the city right now.”
Off to MIPIM
Finally, the panel addressing the forthcoming MIPIM property and investment expo in Cannes on the French Riviera to which Liverpool sends a major delegation every March. The panel considered the question of whether the event had real value – or was it just a jolly.
A veteran of the event acknowledged that people at the event aren’t shy at taking advantage of the hospitality on offer but added that the relationships established at MIPIM proved invaluable over a period of time.
And another said: “Liverpool has a huge profile when we are out there – much more so than other UK cities of a similar size. Given how many cities and investors attend the event we simply cannot afford not to be there.”