Wherever you base your business – town or country – its reputation will rub off on you in some way. At the University of Brighton’s Great Debate, more than 200 businesses discussed whether the city’s brand of fun helps or hinders its economy.
For better or worse, it’s down to the sea.
I’m going to sound like a playground fight… The sea started it!
If you trace Brighton and Hove’s history over the last 200 years, the sea is the main reason why the city has such a strong leisure ‘brand’.
The health benefits of the sea air attracted the rich in the late 18th century. Then the piers drew in thousands of day-trippers in the 19th. Even when Brighton diversified in the 20th, with its two universities and conference facilities, it kept its sense of fun. People enjoyed the beach even when they were meant to be working. (I know. I was a student here.)
But as Andrew Goodall, panellist and owner of Brighton Marina, makes clear, generating that fun is very hard work. The people behind the scenes, in the restaurants and hotels, never stop:
It’s a whole world out there – cleaners, security guards, landscapers – all making a huge contribution to the functioning of the city.
The south coast is a serious business.
And, in the global networked 21st century, work has got harder. Yes, it’s allowed IT companies like Claire Hopkins’ Ideal to grow up in Brighton. Claire, another panellist, points out that for a long time, Brighton’s geographical position at one end of the country meant few IT companies wanted to base themselves here. But thanks to new technology, Ideal can automate its services and work remotely with clients across the world.
There’s a catch. That same technology brings tough competition alongside lucrative opportunities. If, like Brandwatch, you work in the digital sector and sell through the internet, you have to compete in a global market. You have no choice. The rivals snapping at Brandwatch’s heels are US companies, with better funding and bigger markets. Giles Palmer, CEO and panellist, now has a team of 240 in Brighton. A further 135 work in offices around the world, including Paris and San Francisco. So Brandwatch is doing very well in an unforgiving environment.
And life is more serious and competitive for universities – a point highlighted by Debra Humphris, Brighton’s Vice-Chancellor and the debate’s fourth panellist. 70% of the University’s income comes from student fees, but the number of UK 18-year-olds is in decline and Brexit is prompting EU students to look elsewhere for their education. With these and other pressures, Debra has to make sure that the University’s offering is relevant and outstanding:
That’s what the Bank of Mum and Dad expects. I can’t rely on the fact that Brighton is an amazing place to be a student. Of course it is, it absolutely is – but that is not enough. We are competing globally.
The sea and your state of mind.
In this serious business context, Brighton’s sense of fun doesn’t always help. Yes, it’s great when you want a break – and Andrew Goodall will always support your right to relax:
The more you take your time off and come down to the Marina to eat, drink and sail – as far as we are concerned, that is great.
But, if like Giles, you make a decision (in 2011) to go for big growth and take outside investment, you have to switch your gaze from the beach to the boardroom. You don’t want Brighton’s relaxed side to distract your team – even if you love that relaxed side, which Giles does:
I had lived in London and in London there was an expectation that people would work hard. That wasn’t the case for me in 2011 in Brighton… because in order to create a global world-class business, I needed to instil a sense of discipline and work ethic in the staff we had at the time.
It’s at this point he issued a “leave your sandals at the door” health warning. Giles’ team laughed, but they also got it, because they all wanted Brandwatch to grow:
So when we walk out of the office we can have an amazing time, but when we are here, we need to focus and work very hard.
It’s not just the staff. The city’s playful personality can create a misleading impression for clients. Ideal designs, provides and manages secure IT infrastructure for organisations like IKEA and One Family. Claire, like Giles, has worked very long hours to build up the company’s client base:
We sell to medium to large businesses that are bigger than ours. If you are going to sell into this market, then those businesses need to feel comfortable that you are in a place where they can do business. If the focus is on play rather than the business, that makes our job harder.
The sea… a beautiful straitjacket.
As well as its psychological effects, the sea makes its presence felt in a tangible way.
Like any city, Brighton and Hove is suffering from growing pains. But because of its location, the pains are particularly acute.
As the city’s former Mayor Pete West puts it, the city is “trapped between the sea and the Downs” – but it can’t / won’t stop growing. Whether they’re born here or ‘incomers’, people want to stay here, because of the setting. ‘They’ include what Kathy Caton at Brighton Gin describes as “an incredible community of makers, doers and crafters, doing bloody brilliant stuff here”. They are also social entrepreneurs, as Andrew Peel, Peel Consulting, points out: “I think I am right in saying that more people work in the not-for-profit sector or are volunteers, than actually work in hotel and tourism”. And they are people with get up and go. Helen Beckingham, Keyword Copywriting:
We have got one of the biggest freelance populations in the country, something like 13% of our working population.
And when Debra talked about the University’s creativity – “You get the engineers with the designers and the artists and the marketing people. That creates fantastic opportunities and brings synergies between talented people” – she could have easily been talking about the city’s growing SME community in Brighton. The creativity and variety of that community is as much a part of the city’s 21st century brand as its history of seaside fun.
And it’s not just increasing numbers of micro-businesses. The city’s bigger companies, like Brandwatch and Ideal, need more space too. Ideal’s team of 50+ recently moved to plush new offices near the station. Giles is currently looking for more elbow room. 100,000 ft2 in the centre of Brighton, to be precise… “And where the hell can you find that?”
So the setting draws people in and has made Brighton and Hove a success. But the setting also makes things cramped and costly… and could curtail the city’s success in the future. (Discuss.)
How does a city grow up gracefully?
Which brought the debate to Brighton and Hove’s physical branding. Its bricks and mortar – and whether the only way to house a growing population is ‘up’.
Traditionally, the city’s image has relied on its good looks, including the beauty spots of the Royal Pavilion, the Piers, Regency squares and the beach. So it’s not surprising that the debate revealed strong opinions about how it could keep growing and keep its looks. And if it remains attractive, how can it become more affordable? (Again, discuss.)
While buildings and history are important, in the end, it’s the people who make the city buzz… and it won’t work if these people are being pushed out or onto the streets. In the words of Kathy Caton:
If we don’t sort out cutting the Gordian Knot (costs), these makers and doers are going to be forced to leave.
Andrew Peel adds:
Any debate about Brand Brighton is tarnished without addressing the homelessness.
Your view of the skyline…
So what are the options? Does it, as Giles suggests, come down to building more tower blocks, “which is a bit 70s”? According to the audience, not necessarily. Pete West points out that medium rise is another option. The Regency buildings on the front are 6 or 7 storeys high and offer lots of homes in a small area. Toby Rollestone of MacConvilles Surveying goes one further. In a study he carried out as a Brighton University student, he discovered that the density in the Hanover area, with its rows of tightly-packed Victorian houses, was greater than the high rises at the time. Sarah Chitty is from U+I, which is developing the Preston Barracks site. The site is important for the University of Brighton and includes several tall buildings. She stresses that you have to “turn up the greenness if you are turning up the urbanity”. That’s why they plan to plant 300 new trees and 40 species of edible plants in the development.
Andrew Goodall is acutely aware of how much people care about Brighton’s looks, partly because the Marina will soon be home to a 40 storey tower block. He knows there are concerns about high rise, but he feels Brighton’s architectural legacy will ensure that future buildings are up to scratch:
The good thing about Brighton is virtually everywhere you turn you have listed buildings or conservation areas. So the reality is that if you are going to get any further tall buildings, the chances are they are going to be outstanding.
The economic ebb and flow.
So the sea frames Brighton’s culture and draws people in. It’s the same sea that puts space at a premium and makes the place so expensive. Businesses like Ideal have to manage the consequences of that all the time. Claire’s team has to import graduates with specialist computer networking skills from other parts of the country. (There are no relevant University courses nearby – yet.) But no sooner has she brought them in, then they are in danger of being lured away again:
When they get here, after 6 to 9 months of working for us, they begin to receive relentless phone calls from recruiters. It is very difficult for them to remain here unless they are the type of person who intrinsically ‘gets’ Brighton. So you get a really small window to keep them. The challenge is, how do you find people who haven’t grown up in Brighton, who haven’t been here at University, who are going to land here and love it so much, they are prepared to live in this extremely unaffordable place.
Businesses who want to grow in the city are having to deal with this constant ebb and flow of talent. In this context, being near London is either a curse or a blessing. Often young graduates decamp quickly to go to the capital. Equally, it’s possible to tempt senior figures down to the coast – which is what Giles has had to do for posts like Chief Technical Officer and Chief Operating Officer.
Born, bred or made in Brighton?
The toing and froing of personnel threw up another main theme, as we looked to the future. How many of the next generation are likely to live and work in the city? What sort of jobs will be on offer… and is the city’s brand of seaside fun blinkering people to the range of careers out there?
As Debra Humphris points out, it’s about catching people young:
How do you get into the mind-set of young people at school, when by the age of 7 or 8, choices have been ruled out?
So from primary school onwards, young people need to be alerted to what Brighton and Hove can offer, whatever their aspirations. They might want to work in a restaurant in Brighton Marina, or volunteer for a charity; set up on their own as a maker/crafter or join a Brandwatch or Ideal type business, operating in a global market.
What the debate revealed was how important it is for businesses, universities and schools to talk to one another – and bring in people like Jeremy Jacobs. Jeremy was born and bred in Brighton, co-founded Raise Bakery and is now Entrepreneur in Residence at Brighton City College. He pointed out that the college has taken on a work experience co-ordinator, so it’s easier for local businesses to engage with the next generation of talent.
It can’t, and doesn’t, stop there – because the students of today are what will give the city its vibrant brand in years to come. It’s vital to look after what Debra Humphris calls the ‘talent supply chain’. Direct contact with business is part of that:
Often the most powerful thing we do for our students is a work placement with an external organisation. Of those who have a placement, 75% do better in their graduate outcomes because they have had experience of work. Another powerful mechanism is our Industrial Advisory Boards. They are people from industry, working with the academic teams, to shape our programmes and help ensure our programmes are industry-ready.
Opening up the horizon.
If businesses don’t keep in touch, there’s a risk that people make assumptions about what the city can offer. Assumptions that, dare I say, go back to Brighton and Hove’s brand of fun. The assumption that the really serious, big and varied stuff goes on in London and beyond. Claire Hopkins’ story is instructive:
We hired an MD into the business – a guy who has lived in Brighton for more than 25 years. He is extremely experienced in this sector and he had absolutely no idea that our business was here. Well, part of that is our branding problem. But it never occurred to him that he would be able to find work at that level in the city. And I think that if you speak to a huge number of people who travel to London every day to work, there is a myth that you can’t get well paid jobs in Brighton.
I think there is a city responsibility to make sure that the people who live here know they can work here. It is down to us of course, and the head-hunters are very effective at finding candidates… but it would be so much better if people were knocking at our doors saying, “I do what you do. Can I do it for you?”
Brighton and Hove in 2057. The sea’s still here… but what is new?
Well, Preston Barracks are a distant memory. Lewes Road is now an imposing new gateway to Brighton and Hove. The 40 storey tower block on the Marina in the East mirrors the i360 in the West – and people are wondering whether they should put the i360 down for Listed Building status in the future.
Maybe? Maybe not? What the debate threw up was different visions for Brighton’s future.
Giles Palmer has high hopes that if the Universities collaborate even more closely with business, Brighton’s economic profile could shift significantly:
Hopefully people will fall out of Brandwatch with skills to start their own business, having seen what we have done in our company. And as we bring more people in from the Universities, both into ours and other start-ups, I’ve got a pretty good sense that if we pick the right industries, if we get lucky and we get the right funding, we can create a pretty extraordinary digital, engineering and technology city right in the Southeast of England. And we are beginning to do it. We have done it ourselves and others are doing it as well. The engine of the universities will be absolutely critical to that.
For me, the success of this city is that most people who live here should work here. If we are able to turn around the huge numbers of people still travelling outside the city every day… if we can turn that around so that we can provide the jobs and people know that the jobs are here, then the economics of the city will improve. People will be spending their money in our city. So that is what I think success will look like in future.
On the one hand, we want to be local and I love that. On the other side of the coin, if we don’t keep an eye on the bigger picture, then I think we are going to struggle. And, actually, I don’t think we’re going to struggle. I think it is an amazing city and in 20 years’ time it is going to be equally amazing and more. Fantastic. Bring it on.
Oh, and one last thing. The sea will make sure that the special something about Brighton and Hove will never change. I leave you with this reassurance from Giles Palmer:
I don’t think we need to worry about the culture of Brighton. It is so fundamental to the whole place. It is a fabulous thing and we all feel it every day.
… You can put your sandals on now and go down to the beach.
Let the credits roll…
The University of Brighton’s Great Debate thanks the Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce for its unwavering support.
Photography on the night, and the two photos in this article, are by Jim Holden.
The debate was facilitated by me… following in the footsteps of David Dimbleby. No pressure then. (Big thanks to Nikki Mason and Claire Kidd at the University of Brighton’s Alumni Team for making the whole thing a pleasure.)
The final word is yours.
We’d love to know whether Brighton and Hove’s brand helps or hinders your business. If you have a moment, drop me a line in the comment box.