David Marlow describes his position as "one of the best economic roles in the public sector". Why? Because as chief executive of the East of England Development Agency (EEDA), his remit is to grow a £100bn regional economy that encompasses Norfolk, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Essex, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. And as a development economist by profession, he finds the task seductive, if "immensely challenging".
The EEDA is one of nine regional development agencies (RDAs) tasked with driving the UK's economy forward and helping businesses to grow. That could be through any one of four ways, including funded business support; encouraging knowledge transfer activity; improving the quality of towns and city centres and regenerating communities.
Marlow describes the challenges of heading up an RDA using a culinary metaphor: "We're part of a very rich sandwich filling," he says. "We're sandwiched between a national government that wants to get the biggest bang for its buck; a local government that wants to attract investment into its own community; the public sector, with its rules and procedures; and the private sector, which is enterprising and driven by the bottom line. My role is for the filling of the East of England to be as rich as possible."
Significantly, the RDAs have been asked to help the government with its sub-national economic development and regeneration review. In simple terms, says Marlow, the strategy is to join up different public bodies and funding streams at the regional level to strengthen the economy. This includes reducing the number of publicly funded business support schemes from 3,000 to around 100 by 2010. In the future, the RDAs will be given a far greater role in meeting business support needs and for the first time, there'll be a single regional strategy.
Marlow says: "Local authorities will be much more prominent in terms of trying to drive their own economies forward. And a lot of things that businesses care about, such as skills, transport, employability and economic development, should be encompassed within this single strategy." Economic development, he adds, will be placed "much more" at the heart of the RDAs' public policy.
For those directors who are currently baffled by the huge array of business support networks, this can only be good news. As Marlow points out, there's always room for improvement and the sub-national review will fundamentally change the way that businesses access support. "We like to think that many tens of thousands of businesses, overwhelmingly small and medium-sized enterprises, benefit from the business support programmes," he says. "But I fully accept that we need to make this as easy as possible for businesses."
He adds: "I think there are lots of things in the sub-national review that I would read as putting business growth at the heart of public policy. From requiring local authorities to give a more consistent approach to growth, to business support simplification. The challenge for business now is to engage in this process constructively and robustly and to hold the public players to account."