Communication for Sustainable Development

Enterprise zones: why government needs to foster a green ethos

The UK should build the business parks of the future rather than making the same old dirty mistakes of the past.
The government has revealed the last 11 areas to be made into enterprise zones. This policy forms the nucleus of the government's growth strategy to make more "stuff" other than financial services.
The zones will provide businesses with tax breaks, planning concessions and super-fast broadband. However, it comes as no surprise that there were no green criteria in the selection process or measures to incentivise businesses that move into a zone to reduce their environmental impact.

This reflects a wider disparity between green and economic policy, and the environment seems little more than a nice afterthought. Certainly it is not central to the government's growth strategy and does not feature prominently in mainstream economic decision making.

Enterprise zones could incorporate major greening elements without significantly changing the overall costs or policy direction. This will be vital if the UK wants to inspire the business parks of the future rather than make the same old dirty mistakes of the past. But what should this entail?

In the development stage, local authorities ought to create a green ethos to enthuse the businesses which occupy the site. The Birmingham enterprise zone, a collection of redevelopment sites in the city centre, has taken the lead by planning to implement high building standards and district energy systems with the ability to share surplus power with neighbouring dwellings.

Bristol should take note, particularly as it nurses ambitions to win the prestigious European Green Capital award. It has the potential to transform its enterprise zone – an unattractive brownfield site directly opposite the train station – into a novel gateway that could be a visual embodiment of the city's environmental aspirations.

Enterprise zones can also be the perfect conduit to foster the research networks and business clusters to drive collaboration, skills and innovation for a green economy. This should build on the concept of "low carbon economic areas" that were formed in 2009 to help cement strong links between regional bodies, businesses and academic institutions. Successful examples include the development of early-stage wave and tidal technologies in the south-west and ultra-low carbon vehicles in the north-east.

The government has missed a trick by rejecting applications for enterprise zones in both Devon and Somerset that would have developed marine renewables. To rub salt into the wounds, our international competitors are racing ahead. The Clean Tech Business Park in Berlin-Marzahn, Germany, is exactly the kind of private/public collaboration that will attract entrepreneurs and investors to advance Germany's prominence in the solar photovoltaics market. In a similar vein, the US has three energy innovation hubs, including a building retrofit cluster in Philadelphia.

Once an enterprise zone is built, there is plenty that can be achieved in the operational stage.

It is anticipated that the occupants of the zones will be made up predominantly of small and medium enterprises that would not otherwise have the resources to undertake activities that deviate from their core business. Local authorities and civil society must take a leading role to ensure that organisations adopt high environmental standards that will boost their double bottom line.

Why can't businesses that are located in an enterprise zone be encouraged to sign up to the 10:10 campaign and get simple advice from an organisation such as the Carbon Trust on reducing their carbon footprint? Enterprise zones could also facilitate mentoring by larger companies so that they take a much more active role in greening their supply chain, the strident promotion of sustainability skills and the roll out of green leases to break the deadlock over reducing resource use between landlords and tenants.

These proposals will generally lead to considerable financial gains and any upfront costs can be funded by allocating a small proportion of the growth in business rates that will be retained by local authorities.

Fundamentally, they require the creative tweaking of mainstream economic policy to meet pressing environmental needs. The UK must think outside the box to be a sustainability leader and keep up with the international pace setters.

Above all, if the new enterprise zones are not consistent with the principles of sustainable development, they risk turning into the white elephants that many of their predecessors have become.

A number of the zones built in the 1980s were poorly located in rural areas that lacked access to critical infrastructure and potential markets. When the incentives ran out, firms had little reason to stay. A total of 13,000 additional jobs were created at vast expense to the public purse.

Policy makers have addressed many of these failings but society now faces new challenges. It would be equally regrettable if the current series of enterprise zones lock their occupants into yesterday's resource dependent path and miss out on the green industrial revolution.


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