Green White Elephants
I read in our local paper yesterday that a neighbouring council had just unveiled plans for a Green Business Incubator using £2.4million of European funding (and goodness knows how much match funding). I immediately put my head in my hands and started whimpering. Why my negative reaction, you may ask? Surely I support green business?
Of course I do, but these green business parks are usually vanity projects, driven by the desire to be seen to do something tangible to promote green business. When I’m feeling really cynical I suggest that the sponsor of the idea is too busy dreaming of the ‘handshake in front of the billboard’ photo in the press to ask the really hard questions.
My evidence? About 8 years ago my then team were commissioned to investigate green business parks of various types to determine what did and didn’t work. A colleague trawled the web for examples across the world and sent out dozens of e-mails with a survey attached. We got worse than a poor result – a sizeable proportion of the e-mails simply bounced. Not a good sign. When he chased the others for replies he found that the parks had either died a death or had evolved into bog standard business parks (and they didn’t really want to talk about the green thing…). We came to the conclusion that what didn’t work was the whole concept – an inconvenient truth as our conclusions were dismissed by the sponsors of the work*.
Ever since, I have challenged anyone proposing such a park to name one successful working example**. No-one has ever managed to do so.
The broader point are that green businesses are simply businesses like any other. We don’t need special business parks, or any other cotton wool. In most instances it doesn’t matter if the company next door is a web company or a pizza delivery service. There are some cases where businesses may chose to co-locate, but it is rarely critical to their success.
Green business needs are the same as other businesses – demand, a suitably skilled workforce, a robust supply chain – and the bigger green businesses can help create some of those conditions. If the public sector wants to help, the best levers are to increase demand through green procurement, to level the playing field through the removal of perverse incentives and to accelerate the development of technology though targeted R&D support.
But at the end of the day, a green business is still a business – and doesn’t need white elephants.
* The sponsor seems to have attracted two potential tenants in the intervening 8 years but construction of those plants still hasn’t started as of late 2010. The original estimate for the cost of the project was £25m of public money, but I have read that the overall project is about £135m. According to press reports the project still needs £2.2m of public money for access improvements.
** There are some great examples of business parks that have gone green by engaging their existing tenants, but that’s a completely different, and much cheaper, proposal. “Evolution, not revolution” is the key principle for success.