I wasn’t about to put any bet on the city of Brighton and Hove successfully making the shortlist to be home to Channel 4’s new creative hub outside of London.
That I didn’t think this great, bustling, energetic city with a thriving digital and gaming industry had a chance was illuminating enough. However, what was more surprising were the reasons Channel 4 went north of the capital for its shortlist.
You see we have a nagging fear about how we are perceived down in our corner of the South. What Channel 4 did was appear to confirm those concerns.
To the local media, alongside the praise for the bid, a Channel 4 spokesperson said the following and it’s worth quoting in full to understand why many of us in political and business life are beginning to feel the need to dispute a pernicious narrative.
"Channel 4 decided Brighton and Hove’s location meant it would be drawing on a talent pool largely the same as in London which therefore provided less of an opportunity for relocation to have an impact in providing new opportunities for a local workforce.
“It also said the city’s location meant staff would have to travel to or through London to get to the other hubs and headquarters."
We were hit with a double whammy. In the first paragraph we are apparently so full of digital creatives there would be no job creation potential for young people and what we couldn’t fill from such workers in the City Region would be merely taken up by people jumping on the train from London.
Let’s put aside for a minute that Channel 4 executives have clearly never tried to commute on our trains to and from the capital and even that the stereotypical view of Brighton as a city full of bearded hipsters working on laptops in coffee shops appears to have taken hold. Let’s also not also worry too much about the principle of building on strengths to fast track economic growth.
What concerned me as chairman of the Greater Brighton region, an area covering nearly one million residents from the south coast to Gatwick, was that this revealed a lack of awareness of the needs of our young people, the skills gaps we clearly have, the pockets of deprivation that exist and the employment opportunities we need to create for people born and brought up here to be able to stay. That we are simply lumped together with London was always a suspicion. But I hadn’t ever seen it laid out so barely before.
And secondly geography and infrastructure, something we can do little about, was to connive against us. The fact that London sucks in much transport spending leaving infrastructure outside the capital in often dire condition is well known to commuters and motorists here. Northern friends of mine are often aghast at the congested state of our railways and roads when they visit.
But the Greater Brighton City Region has for years now warned that lack of investment on this front risks choking off the contribution our economies make to UK plc. Not for a minute do we underestimate the shambles of the new railway timetables in the North. In fact, we looked with envy as this quickly became a political hot potato worthy of Cabinet discussion. But here on the South Coast from London to Brighton and all the way along to Southampton we have suffered with a calamitously bad rail service for at least three years which has had a serious impact on our economy.
Strikes, mismanagement and a lack of investment in the line has created hellish conditions for commuters and acted as a disincentive to investment. Our support for the Brighton Mainline Alliance, a grouping of public authorities and businesses calling for significant upgrading on the London line, is total but frankly we are not holding our breath for good news anytime soon. Are we to be punished for living underneath London, for failing to get the investment in road and rail that we need because of a vague notion that we are doing alright anyway? I hope not.
What I should say right away is that I’m not really blaming Channel 4. It is the company’s right to go where it wants. In the running to be either a second HQ or one of its new creative hubs Bristol is the most southerly city. Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, Belfast, Newcastle, Stoke and Sheffield are in the running for one or the other.
We suspect the company has been under government pressure to go north but I should also say firmly this is no revisit of a North/South scrap in reverse. We are not interested in that and wish all the other cities well. A fully functioning national economy not overly reliant on London and its finance sector is clearly a desirable thing and some economic macro-management to help this has clearly been needed.
I guess we have a simple request for investment bodies, big businesses, decision-makers of all kinds and, yes, government. That is to forget the preconceived notions about Greater Brighton, that here in the sunny South we are all comfortably well-off or retired to our seaside cottages. I’m asking that you don’t simply lump us in with London, that a Greater Brighton population of nearly a million people deserves better than that.
We want to continue to play our part in creating wealth for the UK to enjoy. However, there is growing evidence that we are failing to maximise our investment and trade potential and that in economic terms we are losing ground to other locations across the UK.
In 2016/17 Greater Brighton had 17 successes in securing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), which was a small proportion of the 217 successes across the south east as a whole and represents less than 1% of the UK total. Furthermore, Greater Brighton is being outperformed locally, with productivity and growth rates lower than other areas within the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) region and wider south east.
And while the LEP, which includes Gatwick Airport, might be the seventh largest local economic area in the country there are signs here too that growth is slowing certainly compared with other areas. Coast To Capital estimate that had we grown at the same rate as other similar areas since 2009 our economy would be now £3.1bn bigger. This would have been a significant contribution to the Treasury.
Of course, I am not suggesting for a minute that we don’t have a lot more to do. Some of this is in our own hands and we are not simply hoping for a government leg-up. Despite the difficulties we continue to make significant headway with £160m worth of LEP investment in flood defences, house building, town centre modernisation, job creation and road improvements.
The opening of an Advanced Engineering Centre and a Constructions Trades Centre last year are reasons to be proud. I am keen that Greater Brighton continues to expand. Last year Gatwick Airport and Crawley Borough Council joined us recognising that together we are a coherent regional force that can get things done.
As chairman I am determined that Greater Brighton will start punching its own weight, pushing its case in a way we have admired from some leaders in the north.
To be seen as the southern outpost of London is to do to the area a massive disservice. My job this year, working with the Board, is to remind government and business that while we do have challenges we also have much to offer to help create wealth for the UK.
Garry Wall, the leader of Mid Sussex District Council, is Chairman of the Greater Brighton Region. The region stretches from Gatwick in the north, Worthing in the west, Newhaven in the east and includes Brighton and Hove.