Forest of Dean District Councillor, Jonathan Lane, has just taken over the challenging mantle of boosting the Forest economy. A key member of the council’s Green Party Cabinet, Jonathan, 41, is a teacher who ran the Sixth Form at Wyedean School for seven years. Ian Mean, a board member of the Forest Economic Partnership (FEP) and Gloucestershire director of Business West, asked him some penetrating questions.
IM: What's your agenda to grow the Forest of Dean economy?
JL: “My view is you have got to start with what you want it to be. So, the way I would summarise it is that I want it to be a place where people and businesses prosper - that's the first thing. I want an economy that's innovative, resilient and ‘green’. I want an economy where people aren't left behind and the areas that need generation are regenerated; and I want an economy where people have the skills and qualifications to excel. That's what I want for the Forest economy.”
IM: You need companies to grow and come into the Forest. Doesn't that growth actually clash with a lot of Green Party policy and thinking?
JL: “For me it doesn't. I understand why you're asking this question, and my priority is on what I would call ‘green’ growth: helping companies grow and decarbonize. I understand the ‘de-growth’ agenda of saying - our environment is in such a state that we actually have to ‘degrow’. But I am not convinced by that. I think it causes a lot of social and economic problems, and I don't think you have to ‘de-grow’ in order to protect the planet and environment. I think you can grow in a ‘green’ and sustainable way. Let's take, for example, the Jones Food Company at Lydney: a successful company making money and they're trying to do it in a ‘green’ way. They are growing food in a place that's close to the point of delivery so we do not have to import it from abroad. They’re cutting down on food waste. If they could get some solar panels, which I think they are doing, they can power what they do with renewable energy. So, I think there are loads of ways that businesses can grow in a Green and sustainable way.”
IM: Productivity is a challenge we all face. How are you going to increase productivity? One thing that you probably saw from the county council’s draft economic strategy was that the Forest has a high productivity rate.
JL: “Isn't that amazing? The productivity data is really, really strong. When it comes to increasing productivity. I'm tempted to say the best thing I can do is get out of the way because it's already going well, actually. In fact, you could argue it is one of the biggest strengths of the Forest of Dean economy. Some of that is to do with the food, retail and wholesale sector, which is a very productive sector. The wholesale and retail sector in the Forest of Dean is actually quite a sizeable chunk of the economy and it's one of the biggest reasons why the Forest of Dean economy is productive.”
IM: The point you make about getting out of the way of business is a good one. We need businesses not to be blocked from doing things or burdened with loads of regulation.
JL: “My take on this is that, in the main, I am a believer in a free market, and I don't really believe that having a heavily centralized planned economy leads to a more vibrant economy. I actually think that it's better as a rule if you step back, let business do its thing as that’s proved over time to be the most efficient way to match supply with demand. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. When the market doesn’t deliver, that’s where government must step in.”
IM: You are committed as a Party to net zero, but you're living in area of quite a lot of deprivation. How can this really be afforded by many households?
JL: “I think that there are loads of reasons for deprivation and I'm not convinced that net zero is a leading cause - deprivation existed well before net zero was a focus. I understand where you're going with it, but I would actually try to look at the root causes of deprivation and tackle those, whether it be low wages, poor health, caring responsibilities, or low educational qualifications. There are loads of different reasons for deprivation, and I see the quest for net zero as being one that should be part of the fight against poverty. One of the reasons why people are poor is because they spend a disproportionate amount of their money on heating. Part of that is because fossil fuel prices are high and so we need to sort that out. If Britain was better at producing its own energy through sustainable means, the price of energy would fall.”
IM: Business is only going to come into the Forest if you make more employment land available, so how are you going to achieve that?
JL: “I think we've got to use our local plan for that. When it comes to the local plan, we must protect our economic land. It should not then be passed over for housing. Don’t get me wrong, I think we do need more housing, but we must make sure that we are safeguarding our economic land as well. We must also look for opportunities, if land becomes available, for economic development.
IM: Do you believe it's right to have an overall structure plan for Gloucestershire?
JL: I think that one thing I've learnt is that you don't solve problems in isolation. It's far better if we co-ordinate and plan strategically together as a county about what the economic priorities are and how we are going to move forward with them. I appreciate that each district might have its own priorities, but I've also learnt that there is more in common than there is difference. There will be areas in districts that are a bit more idiosyncratic and there's nothing wrong with districts trying to remedy a problem that’s specific to their community. You would want them to do that. But there's also going to be huge areas of commonality across Gloucestershire.
I daresay across the West we can all work together on problems and try to have a united voice on issues. You have got more chance of being heard when you've got that united voice.”
IM: What about the Forest building its own council homes as an affordable homes builder? This is probably one of the country’s biggest challenges.
JL: “I completely agree. I think that housing is one of the biggest problems we have in the country. I think there's a massive fracture line in the country between those who own a home and those who don't. I think it's a real issue and is part of the solution to have more council houses? In short, yes, I do believe that. I think it was clearly a massive error in the 1970 and 1980s to sell off our housing stock and not replace it. We're living with the consequence of that popular, short-term policy 30-40 years later, and we're trying to sort it out now and it's really, really difficult. But you're right to bring it up as it’s one of the fundamental economic, social and political problems of our time. Building houses is part of the answer and I would like to see council houses as part of the mix of that solution.
See Jonathan Lane at our free Listening to Business event
Councillor Lane will be one of the speakers at our free Gloucestershire Chamber Listening to Business event, supported by the Forest of Dean District Council, on the 23rd November at the Speech House, Coleford. Sign up to our fully funded event here.