As a new year begins and we approach the country’s exit from the European Union, where does Brighton & Hove sit in the big scheme of things? Are we doing well, or is there room for improvement? What’s to come in the next twelve months, and importantly, what’s to lose?
Kicking off with the basics, you’d be forgiven for thinking that after a decade of austerity and public sector cuts that this particular sector is a crumpled empty shell of its former self – gasping for air and gleefully picking up any crumbs from the table that it can. Well, notwithstanding the significant concessions it has made and, in some cases, the herculean effort to continue to deliver services in the face of such swingeing cuts, the Public sector (Council, police, hospitals etc) is still the biggest part of the city’s £7.1bn economy. Employing over 46,000 people and making up 33% of all employment, it still accounts for the lion’s share of the overall working base.
Second in line, comes the financial services sector. With over 28,000 employees and 20% of the city’s employment base, it’s clear that there is some risk to the city with our imminent withdrawal from the EU. Any contraction felt in the City of London and we’ll almost certainly feel the seismic tremors here by the coast. The cost is jobs, but greater than that, it’s the loss of reasonably well-paid jobs – the knock-on effect on families ability to pay their mortgages, or worse, may not be an unreasonable pipedream (or should that be pipemare).
But it’s not all about money; on a positive note, according to Nesta’s state of small business report, Brighton & Hove is one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the country. In fact, 90.5% of our businesses are micro with only 0.2% large or international businesses. There is a can-do spirit here and one which is ready to disrupt the status quo, try new products and launch new and exciting ways to deliver services to the world. And that’s not just warm words, the city has one of the highest ‘service exporters’ after Edinburgh and London, according to the Centre for Cities.
But what’s all behind this activity? It can’t be all peaches and cream? Well… it’s not. Our great city has some issues, let’s call them growing pains because they aren’t insurmountable by any means. But for us to truly succeed, to truly become a ‘place’ that is sustainable and able to sustain our 380,000+ residents, we need to pull together and join up the myriad corners of our economy so that it works for everyone. It’s no good having a booming economy if our most vulnerable and disadvantaged can’t get anywhere near it.
A useful tool in understanding how our city works is to look at whether our young people have the skills they need to get on in life. Well, on the face of it they do. 100% of Secondary Schools are currently judged as good (against 75% nationally) and 92% of primary schools are either good or outstanding (against 87% nationally). For those taking A-levels, we’re punching above the national average too, with 24% of all students hitting an AAB grade versus 17% nationally. For the younger ones, the story is equally positive, with 67% of primary school children reaching expected attainment levels in Numeracy and Literacy against 64% nationally.
Our further and higher education options in the city are also delivering a workforce for the future, but although we are seeing a graduate cohort of in excess of 40,000 a year with HNDs, Degrees and more, employers are (anecdotally) still complaining that these self-same individuals are not ‘work ready’ and are lacking many of the soft skills necessary to hold down a job. This isn’t the only problem. Because we have a disproportionately high number of very well educated people in the city (49% of the population have a degree or above, compared to 38% of the South East) it means that we have a much publicised and debated ‘Skills Gap’ – with people with PhDs working in entry-level jobs such as baristas or shop assistant, thereby pushing out school leavers who may not have been so academically successful but who nevertheless may excel in the world of work. It’s not good, and all it achieves is to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that in the UK, in 2018, that this is an unacceptable place to find ourselves.
What’s equally unacceptable are the 20% of children living in poverty in the city. That’s a shocking statistic in itself, but its roughly the national average, which is possibly even more alarming. And just to add the cherry on the cake, the average salary in the city is currently £26,759.20. If you happen to be male, it’s not so bad, your average salary is £27,934.40 – but the gender pay gap leaves females over £2000 a year out of pocket. Addressing these issues is as key to delivering a successful economy as regeneration, transport infrastructure or affordable housing.
But what’s the answer. Well, it’s no surprise-it’s complex. We need to increase the number of higher paid jobs in the city, attract industries that can deliver those jobs and work with our education sector to provide the training and skills so that our entire community can benefit and find work that they not only enjoy but will supply them with the means to afford accommodation locally and build a good life, in whatever form ‘good’ looks like for them.
There is a sticking point here, however – how on earth can we possibly provide accommodation that local people can afford to buy when the average price of a home is 14.6 times the average salary (according to Zoopla’s latest stats). Well, that’s not an easy fix either. The City Plan highlights the need for 13,200 homes to be built in order for us to home the additional residents we’ll have by 2030. Even if there was enough brownfield to build on to do this, the planning system, local resistance and development viability all conspire against it happening. The concept of affordable housing has become a bad joke and we all know only too well that a generation has now, possibly irrevocably, been priced out of the housing market. In my opinion, there needs to be a step change in how housing is delivered. Thankfully the city has a proactive Strategic Housing Partnership which is focused on untangling some of these issues, unlocking sites and undoing some of the good-faith decision that has delivered us to this current destination.
If housing is a problem, then its wayward sibling is office space. There’s no lack of businesses that want to locate in the city but finding them somewhere to go can be a struggle. Only two per cent of the total office stock is Grade A, add to that supply issues in terms of scale-up space, which can be a big headache for some of that 90.5 % of microbusinesses that may want to expand, creates a burgeoning crisis for the city. That’s why we need to work collaboratively with our neighbours in the Greater Brighton City Region. Quite simply, the solution to dealing with some of Brighton & Hove’s problems is to spread some of our success across a wider area; creating jobs and security for more people by helping to create a prosperous region.
This is why the BHEP and City Council along with our City Region Partners have published an Inward Investment and Export Strategy. In it, you’ll find details on how we plan to make the city region more receptive to inward investment and what needs to be put in place to keep us competitive both nationally and internationally.
About the Author:
Gavin Stewart is the Executive Director of Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership. The Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership is a group of over 50 individuals from the private, public and voluntary sectors who come together to support the economic prosperity of the city and wider city region. For more information about The Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership, visit their website www.bhep.co.uk.