Q&A with Mark Hawthorne - Leader of Gloucestershire County Council

Ian Mean
Director of Business West Gloucestershire | Business West
18th May 2018

Gloucestershire 2050, the project to develop a vision for the county, is gathering momentum.

But just how can such a wide ranging vision be turned into reality when the county has six district councils, a county council and nearly 400 councillors?

And many of these councillors, of course, have widely differing views on the future of our county.

In an exclusive interview with Mark Hawthorne, leader of the county council, I put some pertinent questions to him.

How can Gloucestershire 2050 go forward with so many district councils and don’t we need a more simplified unitary structure?

I think there is a prevailing view among some quarters that creating a unitary or unitaries will get rid of some of the politics.

My view, and you don’t have to go too far back into history to see what happened with County Structure Planning, is that you just move the politics from one chamber to another. At the end of the day you need to build consensus if you want to deliver real change.

Is the county council enthusiastic about the 2050 project?

I have made it very clear that the county council will be moving into a position of being more pro-active on this agenda. We haven’t been as active on this as we would have liked for about six years.

We have had to deal with austerity and slim down the organisation with a lot of internal focus. We are now better able to lead on the place-shaping agenda.

It means we are more engaged in coming up with a vision to deliver real growth, working with partners in a way we haven’t since the days of the Gloucester Heritage Urban Regeneration Company (GHURC).

Shouldn’t we now be splitting the county into one or two unitary authorities?

The only proposition I have seen on the two unitary model is effectively taking the M5 as the split down the county.

If you think about that you are splitting the two bits that are already joined together. The Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury Joint Core Strategy straddles both areas.

So, I think the two unitary model is in some respects worse than the single unitary model in the sense that it creates barriers rather than building bridges.

If you could reflect back on the GHURC (I was its vice chairman), there was a journey that the politicians in Gloucester took - they said this was the vehicle we need and if it had been imposed it wouldn’t have been as successful.

I think with the Gloucester, Cheltenham Tewkesbury they already have a track record of working together on the Joint Core Strategy, and this would be able taking that to the next level.

Mark Hawthorne tells me he would like to see a step process to create a GHURC type model for 2050 where councils might have a staging post organisation before going the whole hogg.

But how do you sustain it?

In some respects 2050 isn’t the end date, it is the end product. There will be a series of milestones that will be indicative of what we need to achieve - some will be firmer than others.

Part of the conversation we will have in the next five years will be a review of land options within the Joint Core Strategy area and the demand for more housing. Some of the discussions about transport and connectivity will take longer.

There will be another milestone around employment and skills and the higher and further education offer in Gloucestershire not matching the manufacturing base. That will not be corrected overnight.

Research also shows that the greatest uplift in the economy of the county comes with the development of business along the M5 corridor and we are looking closely at working with neighbouring counties.

Surely, the future of Gloucestershire was being considered before the Cotswolds talked about leaving Gloucestershire and teaming up with West Oxfordshire two years ago?

I think it was and it wasn’t. For most of local government we were concentrating on a shrinking business - we were seeing huge reductions in our grant from government and massive increases in demand.

We had the entire re-shaping of adult social care and children’s services which still gives cause for concern.

It didn’t feel like a moment for anybody to be talking about the long-term future.

The Vision 2050 conversation isn’t unique to Gloucestershire - Bristol have had it, Oxfordshire are having it.

For us, it was the first time we had sat down collectively to talk about long term aspirations. It transpired that we actually didn’t have many beyond the five to ten year horizon which led us to thinking longer term and that is where 2050 evolved from.

What is perhaps the biggest issue we face as a county as we progress to 2050?

I think skills is the big issue - there is a skills gap between what employers are looking for and what schools are producing.

There is a skills gap coming out of our higher and further education institutes where the skill sets they are producing are not fitting with local employers. There is also a re-skilling gap for the industries that are re-emerging.

Businesses will not relocate to Gloucestershire if we don’t have the right skilled workforce. Unemployment levels are relatively low at 1% so we need to attract more young people to stay and upskill our existing workforce to meet the future needs of employers.

I get the impression that 2050 has been the catalyst for a light bulb moment in the development of more co-operation between Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury.

I think Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewskesbury working closely together is a good thing for the county, and as I said earlier it can evolve to be more than just about planning.

Which of the six 2050 project ideas are realistic and supportable?

Some of the ideas will survive, some of them won’t. The core corridor of  growth is Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury and what is happening at the bottom end of the county as a result of growth in Bristol and the ending of the toll on the Severn Bridge.

I think that people will support the idea of a 3rd crossing - though most people will see it as a short cut! The real potential is how that end of the county will be impacted by growth in Bristol and the surrounding areas. If you extrapolate what is happening now over a 20 year period - that will only lead to more of Bristol growth happening on our doorstep.

What about the next steps on the 2050 journey?

We will be looking at possible business models in the autumn. We will need specific delivery vehicles and the right partnerships to deliver some of these transformation ideas.

You also have to get the model right and resource it properly.

I think there is inevitable momentum now towards some of the key aspirations of 2050 - they might not end up coming out the way Vision 2050 envisaged but I can see some of the questions that 2050 has posed around Gloucester, Cheltenham, Tewkesbury and the crossing - I can see them being taken up and run with.

Every idea has its time and some of those ideas have just come to fruition. Some of them have been a long time in the making.

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