For too long, I believe the regions of the UK have been somewhat forgotten as London became too dominant, both politically and economically.
Thankfully, and not before time, the political autonomy pendulum is swinging towards devolution-increasing power for regional communities like here in the South West- and away from London and Whitehall. The engine of the UK has seemed to me to be running on a single cylinder with a disproportionate amount of the power, influence and economic growth coming from London and the South East.
We hope this shift in political control to the regions of the UK will be followed by a strengthening of the economies of the great regional cities of Britain such as Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham to the benefit of UK plc.
This is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been extolling the virtues of the so-called “Northern Powerhouse”. The North of England, of course, has important sectors of manufacturing and large centres of population. If you judge from the number of people in many of these areas who voted to leave the EU recently, it is clear that many believed they had previously been ignored by government policy and messages emanating from London.
Here in the South West, I am pleased to say we are too seeing local government following the devolution path and looking to appoint elected Metro Mayors. At the same time, as part of those mayoral packages, councils are receiving major financial assistance from central government towards costly infrastructure developments, which will be the springboard for regional business and economic growth.
Though it gets on with its business quietly, I would say that the South West of England is, already, a powerhouse, in its own right. As a case in point the South West is home to 25% of the UK’s aerospace industry and can claim world class producers of engines, wings, undercarriages and helicopters in Rolls Royce, Airbus and Agusta Westland amongst others. Indeed Bristol is the only large English city, outside of London, which actually makes a positive financial contribution to the UK budget.
The South West benefits from marvellous creativity which is being encouraged by the fact that the region increasingly attracts talented people due both to its work opportunities and its high quality of life. That creativity is exemplified by the BBC in Bristol, the home of the corporation’s world class Natural History Unit.
We are now seeing creative people, particularly, moving out of London to live by the beautiful coasts of Devon and Cornwall due to rapidly improving broadband communications and more affordable accommodation. Travel is also a factor with Bristol, for instance, soon to be just over an hour from central London via a new electric train service. Bristol too boasts a vibrant regional airport and, sitting at the confluence of the M4 and M5 motorways, it is within an hour of Heathrow. Bristol sea port promotes this strategic positioning with its ability to reach 50 million of the UK’s population within a 2.5 hours drive.
I think that Brexit gives the South West region, with more than its fair share of “Britishness” in its quality product range, a great opportunity to take advantage of a new global trade order. We have fantastic food and drink brands with Thatchers cider now selling in the United States and our world famous cheddar cheeses being exported to Korea and France! International consumer brands such as Superdry, Dyson and Mulberry also have their headquarters here.
We are eagerly awaiting the UK government’s go ahead on Hinkley Point C in Somerset so that construction can really start on Europe’s biggest construction project. .
The benefits of this project to the region are potentially enormous with an estimated 25, 000 jobs and the opportunity for local companies to become involved in the supply chain of this £18 billion project.
In the medium term, I hope that Hinckley will give the South West and the United Kingdom huge opportunities to develop a world class and exportable nuclear industry through the expertise developed in the design, construction and operating of this plant.
And as we seek to develop more sustainable energy sources, the wind, wave and tidal power in the South West can also be the platform for a leading global industry. The River Severn flowing into the sea at Bristol has one of the most powerful tide races in the world, and work has already started to find how that huge and consistent water power could be harnessed.
For all these reasons, I think that the South West is well positioned to build on its powerhouse capabilities . We need the ambition and confidence to trade throughout the world (and to shout about it) and the control afforded by local devolution to drive change for the better in our economy and communities.