Motoring to growth?

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SMALL businesses are raising questions over the future strategy of a brand new partnership of the public and private sectors.

South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) was set up last year with the aim of providing the best way of helping the private sector to grow and create jobs.

But at a meeting at the University of Bedfordshire in Luton on January 24, differences of opinion on the way forward began to emerge in public for the first time.

Christopher Murphy, the MD of Bedfordshire-based log cabin provider Dunster House said there was a risk that the voices of people with a genuine interest in the region, which includes Bedfordshire, Bucks and Northants, was not being heard.

“Small businesses like mine which are based here want to have a say. If the economy goes wrong, the 300 people I employ go down the tube.”

Mr Murphy was concerned that the interests of big businesses and major employers like Vauxhall would overwhelm the voices of companies like his.

Other small businesses represented at the event variously told Business Monthly that they felt SEMLEP was becoming a club of men in suits and a body that would not look to invest in companies with high growth potential.

There were no women or representatives of ethnic minority businesses on the panel of the high profile event.

But Rod Calvert, of Bedfordshire and Luton Chamber of Commerce said there had already been a lot of discussion about SEMLEP’s strategy.

He said: “We are working very hard to try to cover these issues. A lot of gnashing of teeth has been going on. We are trying to cover big and small businesses.”

Panel member Jeremy Brockis, corporate partner at solicitor Taylor Walton, said there was a desire to be inclusive.

“It is only going to work if people work together,” he added.

Answering a question about how SEMLEP will deliver its objectives, Councillor Roy Davis, Luton Borough Council’s regeneration chief said: “By kicking each other until it gets done.”

Within the next few weeks a SEMLEP chairman will be appointed from business, to be followed by a board of 12, with private sector bodies getting half the seats.

A shadow board has already been active in submitting bids for government regional growth funds. Lord Heseltine will be making the final decisons.

SEMLEP has put in bids of £13million for improvements at M1 junction 10A, £3million for high growth innovation support, £4million for Silverstone and £5million for the east-west rail link western section.

The bids, especially the one for the M1 have the support of Vauxhall which employs 800 people in Griffin House, Luton, as well as 1,516 at IBC, 250 at Toddington Road and 350 at the Millbrook Proving Ground.

Andy Gilson, Vauxhall’s director of corporate strategy, said junction 10A was critical to IBC.

He said: “We have a 15-minute window for our deliveries. If there are 30-minute delays it has a massive impact on the IBC plant. Junction 10A is critical to us to run an efficient plant.”