Doom and gloom? Wearside responds after Sunderland named worst city for businesses

Empty shops on High Street West, Sunderland city centre.
Empty shops on High Street West, Sunderland city centre.
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SUNDERLAND has the lowest number of businesses of any city in the UK, according to a new report.

The city is ranked bottom in the national table, produced by an influential economic think tank, which highlights the growing North-South divide in working and living standards.

London, the top city, had 2.6 times more businesses per head than Wearside, which had just 176 firms per 10,000 people. Only Belfast had a worse business start-up rate, with Sunderland recording just 23 new firms and an alarming 24 closures per 10,000 of population.

It also reported the slowest population growth, a key indicator of economic opportunities.

According to the survey, which covers 2010-12, Sunderland has some of the lowest-skilled and worst-paid workers, with just 22 per cent of its workforce considered “highly qualified”.

Economic think tank Centre for Cities describes its yearly report as “an annual health check of UK cities”.

It warns that economic recovery in London is widening the gap between the capital and elsewhere.

While highlighting Sunderland, the report also puts Newcastle and Middlesbrough among the 10 UK cities with the lowest number of businesses.

Alexandra Jones, chief executive of Centre for Cities, said: “Cities Outlook 2014 shows that the gap between London and other UK cities is widening and we are failing to make the most of cities’ economic potential.”

Bosses at the North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) have also voiced their concerns at the Cities Outlook 2014 report, which assesses 64 cities.

Head of member relations Jonathan Walker said: “In the last month, we have seen Government GVA statistics demonstrating that our region is closing the economic gap, with the rest of the UK, NECC’s Quarterly Economic Survey recording the most positive set of results for over a decade and the first new Qashqai rolling off the Nissan production line.

“There is a general sense of optimism across the business community, so the findings of this report are somewhat disappointing.

“However, while the businesses we do have are performing well, we undoubtedly need to encourage more people to start their own business and more must be done to nurture young and developing firms across all of our cities, not just Sunderland.”

Sunderland City Council today responded to the report’s findings.

Councillor Paul Watson, leader of the authority, said: “We’ve said in previous years how reports like this are just a snapshot in time and they don’t reflect many other events, facts or figures.

“It’s a very inexact science to compare us here in Sunderland with some of the other cities and their economies whether they are core cities, groups of local authorities in large metropolitan areas.

“Nonetheless, Sunderland continues to attract investment, have improved job opportunities, improved schools, lower crime rates and a quality of life that can see it grow and prosper even more in the future.”

And the economic doom and gloom in the report does not appear to have put off firms and investors, with a unique facility designed to encourage “collaborative working” opening next month in the city.

Open Space, based at the North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC), in Wearfield, will provide access to workstations, mentors, private meeting spaces and information systems for small business owners who currently work from home and require occasional access to space.

David Howell, director of operations at the BIC, said: “The Open Space is designed to encourage business growth and is ideally placed to support those businesses that don’t require permanent facilities but can benefit from access to a professional work setting.

“Co-working can help overcome some of the problems associated with working from home, such as feelings of isolation, by providing an inspiring location in which businesses can network, share ideas and collaborate.” Elsewhere, new business space has been opened in Washington following investment of European and local regeneration funding. Hellens Investments LLP received over £500,000 investment from the European Regional Development Fund, with match funding being provided by the company and loans from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

Teal Farm Park Phase II development, which comprises four units designed for manufacturing or distribution enterprises and for start-up and move-on businesses, supported more than 100 construction jobs and is expected to lead to 124 jobs when the units are occupied.

Gavin Cordwell-Smith, chief executive of Washington-based Hellens Group property developer and land regeneration specialist, said: “We are delighted to see these units officially opened. It will bring both significant economic and employment benefits.”