21 January 2015 14:37

Recent government figures show that for the first time in the UK there are now over 5m private sector businesses, an increase of 330,000 from 2013. There is therefore a renewed focus on ensuring that the right support is available to help fledgling businesses grow into substantial and long term enterprises.

What is the right way to support both start-ups and growth? Looking at over 20 countries, the conclusion of a recent report is that “local” is the right level to ensure that support is available, co-ordinated and accessible. But one-size does not fit all; while in some places, the growth of new firms could be seen to be essential to create a more entrepreneurial environment, in others, it is growth and acceleration of that growth that will lead to more competitive and successful economies.

In addition, running a business can often be a lonely experience and many entrepreneurs can find themselves isolated. They lack peers or mentors to talk to about their problems and experiences within their enterprise.

To allow this local differentiation and to promote better co-ordinated business support and thriving local economies a recent initiative is worthy of note. A network of 15 ‘Growth Hubs’ has been created as part of a Lancaster University-led £32 million Regional Growth Fund ‘Wave 2 Growth Hub’ programme. A year on, a timeline has been produced to illustrate some of the activities involved in accelerating of the number of Growth Hubs across England to 22, in the space of less than one year.

Uniquely, for a programme of this scale, Lancaster University - a Gold Small Business Charter Award winning university - was selected to deliver the programme based on its expertise in supporting SMEs, and its strong reputation for delivering complex funding programmes.

The Growth Hubs play a strategic role in signposting and co-ordinating national and local business support. More importantly, they have targeted support tailored to the needs of entrepreneurs in the context of their local economy. They can provide both the local front door to business support and ensure that support is focused on business need in their locality.

The new Hubs were created in partnership with local councils, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), universities and Chambers of Commerce. The extent of the W2GH community now includes 17 LEPs, 42 HEIs and over 200 local and national business representative, support and innovation organisations, alongside BIS, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government. In the last six-months, they have begun to have a significant impact in their relevant local economies.

As more regions across the country are contemplating how they might benefit from increased devolved powers, the creation of the Growth Hubs through the Regional Growth Fund is providing an indication of how economic growth can be driven locally when powers are handed down.

Lord Heseltine, who sits on a special advisory panel for the Regional Growth Fund, describes the Growth Hubs as vital to making it easier for businesses to start and grow. In his 2012 report ‘No Stone Unturned’, he called for action to devolve power and funds from Whitehall to regions to promote economic growth. He recently visited Lancaster for a Programme Showcase and in his keynote reflected that:

“I would put my money on the people who live and breathe and are reliant on the success of the local economy. That is what this university is helping the government to do – and that is creating Growth Hubs.”

Each of the Hubs has its own characteristics with varying support packages tailored to the characteristics of their local industries and markets. The Growth Hubs in the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire have a strong focus on supporting the Midlands’ manufacturing sector, while the Growth Hub covering Oxford and Central Oxfordshire has a tailored package to support the strong scientific base of that region, focused on innovation.

The Lancaster University-led programme has created a network of Growth Hubs, where the Hubs share knowledge and case studies to ensure the lessons learned in one area can be of benefit to entrepreneurs in other parts of the country. Learning from the Hubs can also be fed back into central government and agencies like UK Trade and Investment creating a direct channel from the ground up about the need for different types of support in different places. While firms that are growing need skilled labour and importantly support to develop their leadership and management skills, those wanting to break into new markets or link with leading-edge research in our universities require something different. The Hubs bring a much needed focus on the customer (business) journey.

This knowledge exchange is facilitated through a programme of events on key issues across the network for example evaluation, stakeholder analysis and workshops on business support in manufacturing and trade. The team at the University also support the Hubs through regular visits, attendance at key strategic meetings and promotion and sharing of activities on social media, through video testimonials and SME case studies. This has resulted in platform for the Growth Hubs to have a collective voice to policy-makers.

The network of Growth Hubs is already providing a benefit to thousands of UK businesses, ensuring that their chances of survival are bolstered. More entrepreneurs are starting ventures, and local environments are becoming not only more aware of their local business needs but are much more connected and easier for businesses to navigate.

The scale and scope of the programme has been unprecedented in terms of the governance role of a Higher Education Institution. The activity in terms of fund holding, distribution, monitoring and evaluation is path-breaking. There was no precedent to follow in terms of setting up the programme. It has gone beyond the mechanics of compliant competent project management, to add value to the emergent Growth Hubs. The success of this RGF programme recently resulted in our Strategic Director being invited to give evidence at a BIS Select Committee on ‘Government Support for Business’.

The video below summarises some of the successes of the programme so far:

This blog includes contributions from Dr Cathy Garner and Professor Ellie Hamilton


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