Don’t force out professional firms

Jun 01, 2007

I AM aware that my column in Business MK has recently been a lot to do with trees, and saving them, and not a lot about business, the raison d’être of this organ. Not only that, but I understand that several people who really ought to know me better have started calling me a tree-hugger.

So, in an effort to get back on track and stop those ugly tree-hugging rumours, I’m turning my attention to issues facing businesses in Milton Keynes and its surrounding areas. There’s possibly good news for Bedford, Luton and Northampton too.

Persuading businesses to relocate to Milton Keynes is one of the key tasks assigned to Grant Seeley, Milton Keynes Partnership’s urbane director of inward investment. And, in attracting large companies like Suzuki and our first Chinese firm, he’s done and is doing a great job.

However there are some issues, particularly in Central Milton Keynes which if left unremedied are liable to force small and medium-sized professional firms out of the city and into the arms and business accommodation of Bedford, Luton and Northampton.

The problem is this; lawyers, accountants, bankers and other professional services firms have always seen the need to have a ‘street presence’ in the business heart of their community. That has traditionally meant occupying a small to medium-sized stand-alone building in the heart of the business district with their company’s name over the door.

However, the current plans for Central Milton Keynes are for large multi-use buildings with ground-floor retail/food offers, some offices above and above them residential.
This is not what professional service companies want and, according to conversations I’ve been having, they will not accept it. For them, it is changing the face of the business district, an area they regarded as sacrosanct.

Look outside the centre of Milton Keynes and you see a problem here too. Large institutional pension funds and property developers are throwing up cheap-to-erect, low-quality standard business accommodation, mostly to rent, in unattractive business parks.

This is not what the professional services companies want, some of whom have had to take floors in multi-occupancy buildings where they have no ‘street presence’.

I had lunch recently with Sean Hickey, at the time the chief executive of Milton Keynes & North Bucks Chamber of Commerce. He told me that the target number of jobs to be created per new household has been recently fudged downwards from 1.6 jobs per household to 1.0. And new jobs are urgently needed here because by the year 2011 Milton Keynes’ population will have risen to 255,780 people – that’s an average of almost 12 extra people every day moving to the city.

At a stroke then, by changing the numbers of jobs required to satisfy those incomers, Milton Keynes is meeting its infrastructure targets.

But how many households have just one breadwinner? This is 2007, not 1937; everybody works – or tries to – today! So is Milton Keynes laying the foundations for a crisis? Will those new residents have nowhere to work? Will new start-up or relocating companies have nowhere suitable to relocate?

I feel that these are questions that must urgently be asked.

For more information, visit www.urbaneden.org
Theo Chalmers is managing director of Verve Public Relations. Tel: 01908 275271 or visit www.vervepr.co.uk

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