Some of the happiest people I know run their own businesses. It’s tough, and it’s complicated, and they work incredibly hard – but they have enormous satisfaction. One of the many great organisations working with young people at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training), Arrival Education, aims to send their attendees off to either a top twenty university, a proper apprenticeship, or to set up their own business.
For the first two options, there is funding available; for the last, it’s very piecemeal. Realistically, few bank-managers are going to hand over start-up funds to 18 year olds with not much of a track record. So Richard Branson’s idea of allowing would-be young entrepreneurs to use what would have been their student loans to invest in a start-up is a great one (with all the usual caveats that not everything will succeed).
What else do entrepreneurs need? Obviously they need an idea – can’t help them with that! But something that they can be helped with is an office: somewhere they go to work and to think and to meet people but which they can shut the door on when they’ve finished – and that’s where the government can make another contribution, which has the added advantage of basically costing nothing.
There are loads of empty desks in various government departments (a Deloitte study showed that some buildings are running as low as 40 per cent occupancy). And there are also entire government buildings waiting to be sold (for example, two Department for Transport buildings which have been sitting empty since 1999 and 2000, or a Cabinet Office property which is empty but leased until 2037). These all cost money for upkeep in the meantime… So why not use them to give space to start-ups? Of course they won’t be super-networked or have the most state of the art equipment. But they are no doubt largely fine.
This is only a small idea. But it could have a big effect. Partly because, if they are sharing space, they may also share ideas and innovations. But also because one of the most interesting ideas this government has is to build on the expansion of asset-owning of the 1980s and 1990s by helping people to take control over their own work. Initially it is – of course – mostly focused on the public sector, with mutuals and other organisations setting up to personalise and localise services. Start-Up Britain is already helping new or growing businesses with other services, and even helps broker some office space in private businesses. But there is so much empty government space it seems silly to have it sitting empty when it could really help so many people with a big idea that could do so much to broaden and strengthen our economy and our society.