Ignore Gloucestershire's young at your peril

Ian Mean
Director of Business West Gloucestershire | Business West
26th October 2018

We now know from the leaked reports on Gloucestershire Live and in The Citizen and Echo that the future of our county is being treated as a priority.

The much-heralded Gloucestershire Vision 2050 project is now up and running and will be in the hands of three development boards of councillors.

But my question, and I guess the question of many businesses, is: will these councillors be able to deliver on this big vision?

I certainly hope so for the future of this county. But there are, in my view, some rather ominous signs that too many councillors involved may well hinder real progress.

And the 2050 project, which I personally see as vital for the future of our young people, really failed to target that key audience - those young people.

I believe something just under £200,000 was spent on an awareness and PR campaign and a final consultant's report on how the 2050 vision could be delivered.

Hardly value for money when the responses were just over 2,500 from the public to the Big Conversation online.

To say the least, the PR campaign was something of a shambles and it hardly touched the sides on social media.

Readers may remember that the Big Conversation started in February this year - two years after Gloucestershire County Council had a real shock when they heard the Cotswolds was considering jumping ship from Gloucestershire and joining up with West Oxfordshire - mainly to cut costs.

Coxit - as it became known - collapsed.

But Gloucestershire County Council wisely decided they should start thinking about the future of the county over the next 30 years.

Some might ask why they had not thought about that big picture before in some detail?

Six big ideas were initially suggested as part of the project vision to generate public interest from the start. In my view, some of those ideas put people off the project generally.

One of those ideas - a so-called “Super City” - developing closer links between Gloucester and Cheltenham - was initially rejected by both councils concerned about their identities.

My view is that in certain areas like transportation - perhaps with a monorail or tram system and a new, major county hospital - the idea was basically a good one.

And it would add scale to the county, which in governmental terms would mean more money, particularly for infrastructure flowing into Gloucester and Cheltenham, as we have seen in Bristol.

The elephant in the room here, of course, is the future of Gloucester Airport at Staverton - the land owned jointly by Gloucester and Cheltenham councils.

The airport land could be developed into vital new homes and a new hospital serving the whole county.

While the “Super City” currently seems to be a dead duck under that banner, there is no doubt that there must be a coming together of Gloucester and Cheltenham more in the future, particularly with better transportation links.

We now know that one of the other six ideas - an international airport in the Cotswolds - will be dropped. Quite rightly.

My favourite idea, long mooted, is a third crossing of the River Severn between the Forest of Dean and the districts of Stroud.

This is now being supported enthusiastically and would really open up the Forest as a tourist destination.

In my view, a new bridge would create community development and new homes in the Lydney and Sharpness areas on either side of the river. So, what is going to happen now after Leadership Gloucestershire - the leaders of the six district councils and the county council plus the chief executives - were briefed on project 2050?

I do think we have some positive steps in the right direction.

There are going to be three boards set up in a Concordat - an agreement with the different councils to drive 2050.

Councillors accept that Gloucestershire now faces major challenges that will impact on all our lives if they do not take action.

Absolutely right. The figures are stark and very worrying.

Councillors were told, that on average, Bristol attracts 4,000 young people every year while Gloucestershire loses 400.

If we continue to haemorrhage young people at this rate our county will be unable to fill skilled job roles, particularly in specialist engineering, for which Gloucestershire has an enviable reputation.

So, three boards will now start to work on the big 2050 Vision.

Board No 1 will be called either the Central Gloucestershire Growth Board or the Central Gloucestershire City Region Board. Its remit will broadly cover the area currently under the auspices of the Joint Core Strategy (JCS) including Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury. In my view, this board will hold some of the vital keys to developing the county’s economy through the new Cyber Park near GCHQ in Cheltenham and the critical role that the improvements at junctions 9,10 and 11 of the M5 will play.

Board No 2 will be the Severn Vale Board considering the potential of a third crossing of the River Severn between the Forest of Dean and Stroud districts. Apart from opening up the Forest of Dean, there is also potential for improvement in the strategic rail network-perhaps even a rail link to Birmingham.

Board No 3 will be the Rural Ambition Board. As most of Gloucestershire is rural with many of our larger businesses in those areas, this group will be looking for a vibrant rural economy.

I also understand that a new Gloucestershire strategic planning group has been set up, which will take in the work of all these boards and help link everything up.

Here is my worry.

How are we going to consistently drive all this activity to create a more prosperous and healthy county relying on councillors alone?

Getting agreements from councils of different political hues is not easy, and councillors change. There are just under 400 of them in the county. Some might say we should have fewer than six district councils plus a county council.

Should we perhaps have two or three unitary councils?

That is not on the cards currently but perhaps it could be in ten years, and bear in mind this is a project with a running time of 30 years.

In my view, we need a business model to be developed that does not just consist of councillors.

My experience as vice chairman of the Gloucester Heritage Urban Regeneration Company over seven years proved that to me. And perhaps most important of all, we need young people involved in the project going forward. 

I would go as far to say you need a shadow board of young people to look at all the big ideas for 2050 with their take on them.

After all, who are the most important people in this hugely important exercise for our county?

It is those young people who will be inheriting decisions made many years before if we are not careful.

Those young people are the future of Gloucestershire and their views and involvement are all important.

We ignore them at our county’s peril.

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