The benefits of Foreign Direct Investment are not being shared with Britain’s towns

Rotherham High Street. Image: Getty.

There is a growing awareness that regional disparities are an urgent problem for the UK’s economy and society, following decades of government policy that has fostered divergence in the fortunes of different places. Research by Will Jennings and Gerry stoker for the Centre for Towns has repeatedly revealed stark differences in the economic fortunes of Britain’s towns and cities. It’s a picture of “Two Englands”, with increasingly different outlooks and experiences.

Until now, however, this debate has not considered another important driver of local jobs and growth: Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Bridging the Gap, the new report launched this week by EY and the Centre for Towns shines a light on the gaping disparity between the UK’s largest cities and towns, which have been successful in attracting investors from overseas, and the smaller towns and rural areas which have increasingly struggled to attract investment.

FDI has increased by four-fold into the UK’s Core Cities – including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow – whilst investment elsewhere has tended to stagnate or decline. These Core Cities have attracted 51 per cent of all FDI projects in the last twenty years.

This was not always the case. The share has increased from 31 per cent of the UK’s total FDI in 1997 to a staggering 56 per cent share in 2017. Of these, London has attracted a whopping 74 per cent of projects in the bigger cities.

The good news story for Britain’s cities is in stark contrast to that for many smaller towns: former industrial towns experienced a seismic 74 per cent fall in FDI projects between 1997 and 2013. This decline shows how certain areas have been neglected by government over a long period of time – dating back to restructuring of the UK economy that began in the 1970s.

Successive governments have compounded this. In 2005 Tony Blair, said the future belongs to those, “Swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change”. Today’s report shows just how much those areas that were able to adapt have continued to benefit, while those who were unable to have fallen further behind.

Towns in particular have suffered from under-investment in transport, and ineffective interventions to raise local skills and qualifications in the local labour market.


By contrast, those towns whose local economies have adapted through location close to universities, such as Cambridge and Loughborough; or a revived contemporary industrial presence, such as Redcar, Rotherham and Mansfield, fared significantly better. The patterns that emerge from this report underline that decline in investment is not inevitable: it tends to occur in places where government has taken its eye off the ball, failing to rebuild or provide conditions that attract investors.

Simply, government must do far more to deliver conditions that make its towns and regions far more attractive to investors abroad. There are political as well as economic rewards for all parties in delivering an agenda with a promise of jobs, skills and infrastructure across the diverse local economies of the UK.

As Mark Gregory, EY’s chief economist notes in the report, the decisions taken by foreign investors are driven by infrastructure and skills locally. The UK government needs to pay urgent attention to improving its offer on this front, and thereby ensure a more even distribution of investment across the country. Our report identifies a clear set of priorities for attracting foreign investment that would share the benefits between Britain’s towns and cities: investment in regional transport, a more place-sensitive approach to industrial strategy, faster broadband for all areas, and incentives that lure service investors out of Core Cities.

The Brexit vote highlighted the deep divisions felt between different parts of the country and the aftermath of Brexit is going to prompt fundamental questions about the UK’s economic model – and how prosperity is to be shared by all. Yet today’s politics is characterised by division. The ex-industrial towns that have suffered from low levels of overseas investment in their local economies were more likely to vote to leave the EU – with successive governments having failed to support them in the shift to a more open global economy. Why believe in a global and open Britain, when you are left to go it alone?

The government cannot afford to ignore the growing evidence about the economic challenges faced by Britain’s towns, and the policies and investment required to make them attractive to investment that will bring jobs, business, amenities and hope to local communities. Not only would this stimulate local economies and boost to some of our most deprived regions: it would make the whole country more attractive to foreign investment, and begin to heal some of the divisions that have emerged.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan. Dr Will Jennings is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of the Southampton. They are among the co-founders of the Centre for Towns.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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