Seeking to deliver a more balanced economy, away from the focus on the UK’s affluent south east has been an objective of successive governments.
However, these are still relatively young, and their focus tends to be on businesses based in large regional cities and towns. Enhancing funding options for business seeking to expand in the regions makes sense.
Here is my six-point plan for spreading investment funding across Britain:
Review initiatives aimed at regions
There are currently three main regional development funds; the £400 million Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund, the £250 million Midlands Engine Investment Fund (MEIF) and the £40 million Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Fund (CIOSIF).
Certainly, these regional funds have had a positive impact, but it may be time to examine more closely their funding commitments.
For example, some analysts have suggested that the Northern Powerhouse is predominantly focusing on the north-west – specifically Manchester. But Manchester is not where investment is needed given that job creation in the city grew by 84 per cent between 1998 and 2015, outpacing even London in the same period.
According to data from the British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association (BVCA), it is the north east which needs more attention, as it lags behind the rest of the UK for venture capital investment by quite some margin. Just 47 businesses in the north east currently benefit from investor-led funding compared with more than 600 in London.
Given this, there is a case for doing more to ensure that regional funds commit capital to areas where there is greater need, as long as the investee companies have a solid business case; that more targeted funds should be considered to be launched to focus on such areas; and that regional funds should have specialist teams, with some dedicated to supporting early-stage businesses and others focused on companies looking to scale-up.
There is also an argument that these regional funds should be given greater funding.
Given that the UK will have a looser relationship with the EU, whatever the outcome of the current Brexit negotiations, it’s probable that the UK’s regional funds will lose EU support. For example, the Midlands Engine Investment Fund project is supported financially by the EU using funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Investment Bank. This is unlikely to continue if any form of Brexit does take place.
Boost regional cities’ corporate and financial profiles
Boosting regional cities’ corporate and financial capabilities should help increase local companies’ funding options. Super-regional cities such as Manchester and Birmingham already have considerable financial services sectors but other cities such as Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle and Exeter are also strengthening their financial services capabilities.
Also, many of the bigger cities in the regions are attracting large corporates. For example, Manchester is home to a number of large national television broadcasters including the BBC and ITV, Sky Limited is headquartered in Leeds and Siemens in Nottingham; Milton Keynes plays host to Santander, Goldman Sachs, Metro Bank, Red Bull Racing and Network Rail.
Such large corporates create not only jobs but a supply chain from which growth companies can benefit. This gives them the opportunity to present a more convincing case to potential funders that the expansion strategy they have, potentially partly revolving around servicing such corporates, is more achievable and will help them get the funding they need.
Encourage more investment houses to look outside London
Private equity and venture capital firms should be encouraged to strengthen their presence in the regions. Some VC and PE firms such as LDC, Lloyds Banking Group’s private equity arm, Foresight Group and Maven Capital Partners have already done so, judging that having executives on the ground will help them source better deals.
Part of this regional push may be behind the recent, more favourable data on funding and investment in the regions. While London and the south east dominate the investment landscape with more than £3.4 billion invested, there has been a notable increase across the rest of the UK, with investment outside London and the south east now making up 52 per cent of total UK investment.
Apply metrics more rigorously
To some extent, regional metrics are already being applied to initiatives backed by the British Business Bank and British Growth Fund and these should be the norm for any new funds launched. Recent British Business Bank research found that a disproportionate number of business angels’ investments are focused on London or the south east. In response, last October, the bank launched a new £100 million Regional Angels Programme designed to reduce regional imbalances in the ease of access to early stage equity finance. The programme aims to increase the availability, supply and awareness of early-stage equity investments across the country.
Ensure high-profile bodies champion this issue
What would help to raise awareness of the need to improve funding options for companies outside London and the south east would be for high-profile bodies, such as the CBI, BVCA and AIM, to champion the issue and reach out to the regions with roadshows and events.
Our Ambition Nation initiative seeks to engage growth companies across the UK with a mix of roadshows and events to help businesses in the regions to access the resources and funding they need to expand. Also, through these events and our Ambition Nation reports, we seek to help educate companies in the regions, many of which are unclear about their funding options and which type of funding, debt or equity, is most appropriate for them.
A more balanced economy to deliver a global Britain
London may be the world’s finance capital but what we need is for companies across the UK’s different regions to have the opportunity to bring their products and services up to the global standards that City firms provide. Having access to the right funding is critical to this goal. It is only if this is achieved that we can support the emerging new businesses, drive innovation and give fast-growth businesses the resources they need to scale up and play their role in delivering a much more balance economy and a truly global Britain.
Stuart Andrews is head of corporate at finnCap Group