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News - 21 October 2012

Supercity debate at Sovereign House

Over 130 people from a wide variety of businesses across the city and neighbouring areas turned out on a wet Thursday lunchtime for a meeting in the newly refurbished Sovereign House in Brighton to discuss what it means to be a supercity and if Brighton could become one.

Brighton was first identified as having the potential to be a ‘supercity’ in a 2009 report by HSBC Bank into the future of UK business. Brighton was singled out as the “rebellious, alternative-economy, deregulation capital of the UK”. In other words businesses are quick to challenge the way things are normally done and no one laughs at quirky ideas. The report also suggested that Brighton and four other ‘supercities’ would lead the UK out of recession and generate considerable employment and wealth.

With a population now officially 14,600 people more than projected before the 2011 Census, Brighton & Hove has 273,400 people living within its boundaries and a workforce of about 150,000. What it doesn’t have is enough jobs for everyone and consequently 19,000 people are seeking work but a year ago it was nearly 24,000 so we are moving in the right direction. Indeed Brighton & Hove has a good record of job creation and was top of the league table a few years ago generating 21,100 jobs private sector jobs [the type the government wants]between 1998 and 2008. On the downside the majority were created in the first five years of that decade and over half were part-time but we are still a net creator of jobs and some Brighton industries e.g. digital, are growing at twice the national average.

And the good thing about the digital industries is that they tend to be ‘graduate hungry’ and consequently offer well-paid jobs to some of the 7,000 graduates that our two universities create every year. Indeed, because of those graduates we have one of the best qualified workforces in the UK with 46% of workers qualified to degree level or equivalent, far outstripping the UK average of 33% and the south east average of 36%.

This isn’t reflected in wages however. Median earnings for residents stand at £527, which is above the UK figure of £503 but well below the south east at £554. And those figures are for people who live here [residents] but don’t necessarily work here and with 33,000 people leaving the city every day many of them don’t. For the 28,000 people that live outside the city and commute in to work median wages are even lower at just £460/week which is below both the UK and south east figures. But workers wages are increasing at over twice the rate of those in the south east and the UK so, once again, we are moving in the right direction.

Wages matter because Brighton & Hove isn’t a cheap place to live. House prices are now just 4% below their 2007 peak before the recession and someone would need a salary of over £40,000 p.a. and a deposit of £44,000 to buy a one bedroom flat at an average cost of nearly £175,000. Renting isn’t cheap either and the current monthly rent of £767 for the same one bed flat has increased by 17% since the start of the recession. Given the dire shortage of housing, especially affordable housing, rental levels and house prices are unlikely to drop. The city needs up to 19,000 new homes over the next 20 years but only has space for about 11,300 unless we abandon our employment sites and use them for housing turning the city into a dormitory town. Brighton & Hove will simply never have a balanced housing market and will always rely on our neighbours along the coast and to the north to provide housing but hopefully we can provide jobs in return. The proposition will become more attractive as wages for workers continue to rise.

[l to r] Phil Graves, Andrew Mosley and Ryan Heal


The whole concept of working with our neighbours is often mentioned but it is sometimes difficult to see it working in practice. The Chief Executive of Lewes District Council, Jenny Rowlands, was at the meeting and expressed a heartfelt desire to work closely with Brighton & Hove especially in Newhaven just a few miles along the coast. Lewes and Brighton are closely linked with nearly 8,000 people travelling from Lewes to Brighton every day to work and over 4,000 going in the other direction.

Many of the challenges listed above resulted in lively debate at the meeting but perhaps two in particular silenced the audience; one, child poverty is local and the other, climate change, is global. The boasts of a supercity where 22% of its children live in poverty are likely to ring hollow. And with Ofgem warning that the lights could go out in 2015 as UK electricity generating capacity reduces but demand does not, the need to secure our energy supplies and reduce our carbon footprint were brought into sharp relief. The principles of One Planet Living, much promoted by the current Green administration and MP, need to be translated into practical actions if they are to become understood by the business community.

The city’s desire to take advantage of new industries was obvious but the meeting understandably struggled to identify what these might be given that many are probably not even invented yet. Who for instance had heard of an ‘app’ ten years ago? Digital is a revolution that will touch all businesses and Brighton is strong in this area but less strong in environmental industries despite a desire to be a centre of excellence. Similarly we have a fledgling health & life sciences sector that could surely boom on the back of the £420m construction of a new hospital and a medical school that is one of the most oversubscribed in the country.

The mood of the meeting was to proceed towards supercity status with enthusiasm but also caution to avoid underestimating the scale of the challenge. But encouragingly it was also rooted in a desire for a fairer, more equal society, where no child lives in poverty and all young people leave school achieving their full potential.

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