Brian Wright: Business in 2000

October 01, 1999

Comparing the themes coming through the 2010 Conference with LEntA’s experiences over the past 20 years, two things in particular stand out: the change in the relationship between business and government and the fragmentation of the business organisations.

Obviously since 1979 the whole scale and tenor of community affairs programmes have changed and they are now accepted as a de rigeur item in company policy. Equally the pressure on companies has multiplied both on a local and a political level.

In addition to the growing power of the consumer and the press, a strong theme that came through the Conference was that business will be increasingly driven by the government’s agenda. David Blunkett and Patricia Hewitt both attended (though when LEntA was launched in the middle of the 1979 Election, three Labour Cabinet ministers sat on the platform).

The fact that David Blunkett was the lead speaker at the Conference does represent a major change in that DfEE is now the main focus. However the government’s new found interest in small firms and the work of the Social Exclusion Unit is bringing the DTI and DETR back into the picture.

My view that government now drives the agenda was strongly supported by Philip Stephens, Editor of the UK edition of the FT, but disputed by both Bob Worcester of MORI and David Grayson of BITC. In some ways it depends whether you define things like sponsorship of the Dome as marketing or community affairs, but I do genuinely believe that business now responds rather than leads.

In 1979, it was the business world telling government what it was going to do. In 1999, it was government telling business what it wants. A good example is education. In the late 1980s, when LEntA and ILEA were blazing a trail on education-business partnerships and compacts, we were trying to persuade the government to adopt them as official policy.

Among key issues debated at the conference, Anne Page of the London Research Centre, which is now one of the leading demographic forecasters, estimated that 37% of the London population will be from minority ethnic communities by 2010 (of which 40 per cent will be UK born). She challenged companies to respond. Jim Carroll of Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty looked at the implications of the Internet – and surprised most delegates by saying that it will actually increase the need for local community action.

Another change since 1979 is the ever-increasing number of bodies involved. LEntA started as part of the Chamber of Commerce, and the first enterprise agencies were all based on the chambers. This link eroded but it is likely that business involvement in the RDAs will reinforce the need to restore a clearer link between the business-led intervention agencies and the mainstream business organisations.

In 1979, the main thrust was how to get the business world to support the growth of small businesses in the inner city. In 1999, the Conference ended with Patricia Hewitt urging business to get involved in helping small businesses to grow anywhere….

Brian Wright has been the Chief Executive of LEntA since its foundation in 1979. He was previously a deputy director of the London Chamber of Commerce, an employee of the then Liberal Party and a (not very effective) manager in the family business in Birmingham. He is a non-executive director of Greater London Enterprise and treasurer of Vision for London. Brian will be stepping down in the spring of 2000 in an attempt to become one of Charles Handy’s ‘portfolio people’. He will still advise LEntA on new projects and London issues.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 48 – October, 1999