I would like to share with you the details of a project that perfectly illustrates why we can get more out of the European Union than we put into it.
In the early 2000s, I joined the East Birmingham and North Solihull Regeneration Zone as its Employment Development Manager. I had recently completed a tour of duty within the Employment Service and I was being transferred to a new role monitoring the ES’s European Social Fund Co-Financing contracts in Birmingham and Solihull. An important, but mundane position in comparison with the jobs I had held with the ES in the previous ten years or so.
In retrospect, I was probably being rested and, tactfully, reminded that jobs like the one to which I was being moved were just as important as the highflying ones I had been involved with previously. Anyway, I played my face, partly because I had proposed turning down some of those applicants for those very same funds, who had subsequently gone on to receive them. Hardly a good starting point for building a partnership with projects and beneficiaries!
I was offered, co-incidentally, another position (on loan from the ES) to the Birmingham Race Action Partnership, at their request for me, in particular. I took the offer as a great compliment, coming as it did from a critical friend of the ES. If I had not already been working with the Zone, I might well have chosen BRAP over it. Again, thanks chaps for the vote of confidence!
The Zone job resulted from soundings from the local Learning and Skills Council who were overseeing part of the Zone in its embryo stage. I had replaced a senior ES manager on its Employment and Skills Sub Group as both a plenipotentiary for that ES manager and as a (respected, firm, but fair?) project appraiser.
Senior Management gave me the three options from which to choose and I chose the Zone. I became the fifth Development Manager. I think I was the only one such out of the six Zones set up by Advantage West Midlands, the Regional Development Agency. I was shortly joined by Development Managers for Enterprise; Economic (Built Environment) Regeneration; Economic (Skills and Training) Development and Community Economic Development. The Zone’s revenue pot was never very big so I advised and supported my colleagues with my expert knowledge; supported them in their roles, not just concerning employment; shadowed and learnt about key areas of social and economic regeneration; undertook project appraisals and led on project developments. We all were multi-tasking. It was exciting, but sometimes tiring work, but not in a Farage sense.
Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but it may help to underpin the following case study. We were approached at the Zone by an inventor seeking to start up a new business. He had been referred to me, because he was exploring the support that would be available to him when he started to recruit staff. In addition, it may have been a way of fobbing him off, but in a positive way.
Actually, he was looking, to begin with, for funding to develop a new recycling process. At the time, there was a lot of controversy about the recycling of Information and Communication Technology, especially Personal Computers. This chap had made a major leap forward in the field. All he needed was a small amount of money to take his idea to the next stage of development.
He needed the money to set up a mini plant to test out the commercial viability of his new process, namely the recycling of PC monitors and, specifically the two glass screens therein. If I remember rightly, the inner screen contained (contains still?) lead, which though it could be recycled, could not be used for glass products, such as, jam jars. Pesky European Union rules forbade the use of the recycled glass in containers that might contaminate their contents, for example the jam in jars. The glass, having limited uses when recycled was not viable, commercially. I gather the monitors were ending up in landfill, possibly leaching into the local environment or being sent to the developing world to be ‘recycled’ in unsafe working conditions. The advent of annoying EU Electrical Goods Recycling Regulations would make these practices illegal and, thereby, create a new opportunity for commercial and not for profit businesses with all the obvious resulting social, environmental and economic benefits.
The chap had approached the commercial business sector for start up finance. They said no, but we will be happy to lend to you, once you have proved that the process is viable. He had patented the process and already had potential customers waiting in the wings so he would not need the money, if the process could be scaled up.
He went to the Department for Trade and Industry. They said, interesting idea, but recycling is not a priority business sector for us. Try AWM and they passed him on to me. Now AWM had access to European Regional Development Funds, which might have been open to him, but EU rules would only allow for up to 50% of his prototype to be funded and he, like all applicants would have to spend his own money before claiming it back from ERDF. ERDF rules allows for public fund grant aid to go to Small and Medium Size Enterprises, but not directly to the likes of Tesco. Not surprisingly, given the risk aversion amongst conventional lenders, ERDF monies for enterprise are rarely enough to fund all the projects approved, in principle, for funding.
I could address the employment aspects of the project and that might lever in funding that might be matched against funding being sought from elsewhere. Few, if any funding bodies, will fund the full costs of a project, but they will consider being part of a cocktail of funding. However, what about all the paperwork, the bureaucracy etc?
The bureaucracy is more than it might be, because most funders distribute funding, courtesy of the taxpayer. Moreover, there are many people out there ever eager to find fault with the spending of public funds. It is a shame that they are rarely as anxious to report the many successes resulting out of ERDF spend, for example. Often the money goes to plucky entrepreneurs (including social enterprises) and the Big Society, in the shape of the long established Voluntary and Community Sector. The VCS existed before David Cameron’s ancestors waded ashore at Pevensey.
We talked about alternative avenues of finance, for example, borrowing from potential customers who would soon need his services to recycle their products, because of the EU. Then we got on to my specialist subjects.
I was looking into potential jobs growth in the Environmental Business Sector and, within that sector, likely job prospects for People With Disabilities. He wanted to employ PWDs, particularly people with learning difficulties. He wanted to do so for social and business reasons.
His process was safe. It had to be to comply with Health and Safety Regulations, imposed on him by national and EU tiers of government. He was creating labour intensive, repetitive manufacturing jobs. He feared that people, who might be easily bored, would not stay very long and that the resulting staff turnover might cost him his business. However, there is a lengthy tradition of PWDs carrying out similar work for the likes of Hornby, the model train manufacturer. He wanted to offer well-paid, hopefully secure jobs to PWDs. He wanted to discriminate.
He could positively discriminate in favour of PWDs, as long as he complied with the Disability Discrimination Act. We, in the ES, could help him do so. We had access, then, to a smorgasbord of funding and support for both him, those applying for his jobs and subsequent employees. We could help him create new, well-paid jobs in manufacturing, courtesy of EU regulations. We could support growth in a new business sector and help a company with the potential to become an exporter to Europe, partly through the Single Market and related regulations.
He had patented the process. European companies, courtesy of the EU Regulations, were eager to pay him for a licence to use his process. Possibly, they might see their way to stumping up some development money.
The Chinese just wanted to buy his patent from him.
As his company was in Stourbridge (outside of our patch), I put him in touch with colleagues at the Jobcentre in the town and a sister RZ. Stourbridge has a history of glassmaking. He had set up in a building linked to the industry. I think he was local. I am sure he had a relative who was a PWD.
All the guy wanted to do was to get his business off the ground, make some money and put something back into the community. It was not the EU stopping him making his dream a reality, was it?
PS What is there not to like about what this chap wanted to do? His idea ticked all the boxes and, if he had got money from the EU, the return for the taxpayer from each pound would have been more than a pound.
The business would have been paying taxes, as would the employees. Some of them may have come off social security. In addition, it is not every day, PWDs, particularly those with learning difficulties get the chance of a well paid, fulfilling job in the private sector. And the environment would have benefited too.
Priceless, as the ad says (or what)?
Alas, like many people I had the pleasure of helping during my career, I do not know what happened next. I would very much like to know though!