Imagine an organisation with a property investment portfolio worth £110 million, one which owns several successful businesses, enjoys a £3.5m sponsorship deal with one of the world’s top airlines and, most impressively – one which pumps 100% of its profits into the local community.
Chances are you wouldn’t envisage this successful business empire to be part of Portsmouth City Council. Yet, under the leadership of conservative councillor Donna Jones, who Tracy Nicoll of The Business Magazine spoke to, PCC is being run as a successful multi-million-pound business
Born and raised in Portsmouth, Jones worked in investment banking for ten years before she became PCC Leader in 2014. Once in office she immediately set about reinventing Portsmouth to attract major investment. Repositioning itself as The Great Waterfront City – cosmopolitan, cool and business savvy. “I was quite aware of the dire need for a rebrand to bring a clear image of Portsmouth both nationally and internationally,” she said.
It is a rebrand borne out of some inspired commercial decisions, tapping into Portsmouth’s international events and iconic buildings. Portsmouth is now home to Sir Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover Bar America’s Cup team, generating an association with the aspirational brand and event sponsor Louis Vuitton. In June 2015 PCC sold the naming rights to the Spinnaker Tower in a five-year deal with airline giant Emirates worth more than £3.5m. Key to this new image has been the new £11m harbour interchange and three high-end hotels currently being built.
Jones’s entrepreneurial vision and business-focused approach will help yield an estimated investment in Portsmouth over the next 20 years of £2 billion funded via a combination of grants, the private sector and its own investments. Schemes include a new motorway interchange, improved flood defences, the redevelopment of 50 acres of council-owned farmland into a business hub, a new city retail park and transforming former artillery barracks into slick artist studios. With many schemes completed or underway there is a buzz in the air of a city on the up.
But perhaps Portsmouth’s biggest success is its commercial property investment portfolio. Using preferential loan rates to purchase £110m worth of commercial rental properties nationwide, which last year bought in annual net profit of £4.9m used to fund public services. A further £50m has been set aside for similar purchases.
There are critics who believe the strategy is high risk but Jones is confident it is the way forward for all city councils to generate an income, fund investment and ultimately build a contingency pot. “Despite a £9m cut in our government grant last year I only had to passport £900,000 of that into actual cuts to services. £8.1m came from new income generation and the rescheduling of old debt. We have protected our public services, all our libraries and museums and we’re committed to keeping weekly bin collections.”
She added: “It’s my opinion that all councils in the UK now need to start running councils as if they are businesses to protect high-quality public services.”
Does a career in Westminster beckon? “I’d never say never to being an MP but right now being leader of a city council with a £740m budget and 8000 staff is hugely interesting and challenging. I’ve been in politics more than a decade but I try never to forget my private-sector principals. After working for a plc my brain is conditioned. Constantly questioning, reasoning, thinking about risk management, the likelihood of success and how to make a profit.”
Her legacy, besides changing the whole culture of the city council? Within six months of her appointment an entire level of strategic directors were removed saving over £650,000. “I hope I have given the city aspiration. That we can achieve more and do more than previously thought possible. We can play with the big boys, we can buy property, we can make an income, we can sell the Emirates Spinnaker Tower naming rights. To just keep pushing to improve the lives and outcomes of the people of Portsmouth, which ultimately is why I’m in politics.”
Concluding: “That’s why I think we really do need smart business people standing for election, to help run services both centrally as members of parliament and in local government, particularly running a city council.”