Katherine Bennett, senior vice president of Airbus at Filton in Bristol, is the new chair of the Western Gateway project designed to give a greater voice to the South West and South Wales in Whitehall. In her first major interview about her role, we caught up one morning over Zoom.
We have all heard of the Northern Powerhouse, but what exactly is the Western Gateway?
“It’s the newest powerhouse for England and Wales which was created back in November 2019.
“So, it’s a follow on from the Northern Powerhouse which has been going for a lot longer and the Midlands Engine, which was created a couple of years ago. So, the Western Gateway is the newest economic powerhouse for the UK.
“It encompasses South West England - the core cities of Cardiff and Bristol and stretching from Swansea to Swindon and North from Weston-super-Mare to Tewkesbury.
Why hasn’t this happened before? The South West seems to have been ignored by government for quite a lot of years?
“What you say there in many ways chimes extremely well with me.
“Many years ago, I had the honour of serving on the first West of England LEP and that’s when the Northern Powerhouse initiative started. We all thought, hang on, what about our part of the world?
“Maybe, it has taken a while but the best thing about this one is that that it is being developed from the bottom up.
“The big cities, the local authorities in the area that the Western Gateway encompasses. It was actually their idea.
“They realised there was a lot of commonality between sectors, and they said: “let’s do something”. I am pleased to say that the government then thought it was a good idea.”
Why do you think the government chose you to head it up?
“I think my name was put forward by several parts of the area, and working for Airbus, we have sites on both sides of the River Severn.
“Having served on the LEP, I care deeply about the economic improvement of this area.
“I understand they wanted someone who knew how to build relationships with people, and I feel that is one of my strengths.”
I ask her how the government’s ‘levelling up’ philosophy can happen in this region?
“In a way, I am pleased they are focusing on areas outside of the South East and London. But I do get a little bit irritated when I hear them saying: what do the regions think?
“Please do listen to us. It’s the core strengths of our cities in this region that matter, and we must not forget the rural areas like where I live in North Wiltshire. The economies rely on each other.
“’Levelling up’ is all about ensuring the right kind of infrastructure and resources are targeted at the right place.
“That is not to say we aren’t very delighted to be part of a country that has such economic powerhouses as the City of London and the South East, but in a way, let’s start focusing on what we in the cities and the regional areas want to see invested in.
“Maybe that’s what ‘levelling up’ is all about - more of a voice.”
What about your priorities?
“The big thing for me is not to step on toes of existing economic organisations and it has taken a few months for me to really work it out - not only in my head - but among the other partners and leaders I work with.
“The key focus for me is to be an advocate for the area - to amplify the projects these very important partners are working on.
“But also, to really fight and shout about our area. If we see some infrastructure money that might be becoming available, we want to ensure we put a good case in and show we can deliver the economic benefits that can bring.
“We must focus on the sectorial strengths we already have in our area - getting the rail connectivity better to parts of South Wales, for instance.
Is there a unique selling point or USP for the region?
“One of the things we like to concentrate on is creativity and innovation. Net-zero is so important and our area has a big advantage in terms of tidal energy, nuclear energy and there is a big green movement.
“Perhaps that is an area we should look to promote more. There’s so many wonderful things that come from our area that we need to shout about some more.”
Do you have any particular thoughts on projects you would like to see post-COVID?
“I am not going to pick any winners today, but I have had some people come and talk to me about ideas.
“Certainly, on this side of the River Severn, there is big ambition for the Temple Quarter project in Bristol working with the University and there are many opportunities for small business and housing.
“I wouldn’t dare to stray into housing policy, but I am interested in the big strategic sites like the Honda site in Swindon. How can we ensure that is maximised for the area?
“Then there are the freeports consultation with Cardiff and Bristol - let’s ensure we put the best foot forward.”
How, I wondered was she going to convince tough talking local government leaders from South Wales. How was she going to straddle the two countries?
“I am very respectful to the fact there is a Welsh parliament and a Welsh government.
“I have taken a lead from the local authority leaders and the business leaders in the South Wales community.
“One of the first things I did after my appointment was to spend the best part of a day in Swansea.
“I had a fantastic morning with the leader of the council zipping me around the city centre in his Mini to hear him talk about the passion for his city.
“I want to really listen to people like him. There is amazing creativity in Cardiff. I am not ignoring the fact - you are right - there is some difficulty in understanding what a Gateway partnership could deliver.”
So, who is your audience for the Western Gateway?
“In many ways, if I walked out on my high street, people would not know what I was talking about.
“That is true of most people in the area, so we have got to start building up the brand and my job is to advocate our area - firstly in Whitehall and Cardiff.
“But the other job I feel our business leaders can do is to amplify and advocate our voice externally from our area to get more investment.
“I have a big theory that business follows business and I am collecting together a group of other business leaders in our area who are more than happy to champion us when they are out doing their business saying what a good area this is.”
Has Western Gateway got any money to spend?
“When we were initially announced, some investment was put in and I am pleased we were mentioned in the Queen’s Speech and in the Budget. Some money was set aside for the international trade work.
“Part of my job is to fight for extra funding. But I am not all about pleading for money. Somebody said it is better to lead rather than plead.
“I have managed to get some help from the all-important local authorities and businesses have offered help. I am very happy to take that help as long as it is balanced against the resources we already have.
“I am also very anxious that we have the English/Welsh balance right as well.”
What about involving Devon and Cornwall in the Gateway?
“There is Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset as well who are not currently part of a formal powerhouse such as ours.
“I won’t pretend that there are discussions about the wider geography.
“They are very good at advocating for themselves, and I have had lots of discussions with the different counties in the South West Peninsula.
“For me being from aerospace, the South West aerospace cluster is a key thing that works very well.
“So, for me initially we are working on a project by project basis.
“The M4 doesn’t just stop does it? It just carries on. The rail network carries on. I would much rather work with our neighbours, and if that requires a bigger powerhouse then that is a discussion to have at some point.
“We have to understand we are just getting going here as the Western Gateway and we must keep our partnership solid now.”
You have talked about recruiting business leaders as ambassadors for the Western Gateway. Don’t you need top people like Sir James Dyson to help you?
“I would be very happy to talk to Sir James - he literally lives down the road from where I live. I know he has a big passion for what needs to be done in economies to help support business, innovation, engineering and creativity.
“There are many other business leaders who might wish to get involved and I would be happy to meet them.”
How do you see the economy post-COVID?
“From whatever is going to happen it is going to take a while. I think a lot of us are a bit scared. “Many fantastic businesses have been operating at full pelt. In my sector, aviation, we are saying it will take two to three years for us to get back to something near normality.”
Do you have a message for the Prime Minister?
“Levelling up is a good idea and don’t forget to consult with the different areas, which already have a lot of good ideas for how to assist with the economic recovery.
“Let’s get this country back working again”.