A perfect summer’s evening formed the backdrop to the Q2 West of England Initiative meeting 2018.
Held at the Winter Gardens Pavilion in Weston, growth and regeneration in North Somerset was squarely on the agenda.
President of Bristol Chamber & Initiative, Richard Bonner, opened proceedings by welcoming new members Moon Consulting, Crest Nicholson, Ben Heald and Willmott Dixon, before giving an update on the latest happenings in the city region, with the West of England delegation to MIPIM, the transformation of Colston Hall and the upcoming Parliament of Mayors in Bristol all getting a mention.
The first speaker of the night was Weston College’s Paul Keegan, who gave the audience an introduction to what is increasingly viewed as a key asset in the West of England’s education, skills and training provision.
The College itself has achieved some important accolades in recent years, including a Beacon Award, the Queen’s Anniversary Prize and FE College of the year. Weston College also achieved gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework.
State of the art facilities, such as the £4m future technology centre and construction skills centre, have helped cement the College’s reputation, but its impact on the economy and regeneration in Weston and North Somerset are perhaps its greatest legacy.
Weston College’s growing reputation and its ability to attract more and more students from across the West of England, has had a transformative affect in the immediate vicinity of the College, helping to regenerate the town as a whole.
With degree awarding powers, Weston is not only viewed as the FE provider of choice, but increasingly being viewed as HE provider of choice and a university town too.
Attracting more and more young people to study, and eventually live and work in the town, has helped to attract investment and revitalise the town centre, just one of Weston’s recent success stories as the audience would later hear.
Following the introduction to Weston College, Kalpna Woolf, founder of the pioneering 91 Ways, spoke about her latest project On Board.
On Board’s mission is to improve diversity and inclusivity on boards of companies in the West of England, by opening up career pathways and identifying future business leaders from BAME communities.
While there is, of course, a moral case for inclusivity on boards, Kalpna said, the business case alone is highly compelling.
Research has shown that firms with more diverse boards on average receive a 15 percent productivity gain.
“What business wouldn’t want that?”, said Kalpna. Senior business leaders in the room applauded in agreement.
Mike Jackson CEO of North Somerset Council was next on the stage. Mike painted a comprehensive picture of the economy in North Somerset, recalling some impressive headline stats, including its £4.5bn GVA, 211k population and its emerging status as a significant travel to work area in the West of England.
For many years, Weston has been a centre for daytrippers from across South West England. However, in recent years, due to a lack of affordable housing and excellent transport links with Bristol, young professionals were increasingly looking to Weston as a desirable place to live.
As a result, job and new business creation has snowballed in and around Weston. Mike singled out the junction 21 enterprise area as a particular success story, with the Hive business centre achieving an impressive 90 percent occupancy rate.
The demand for homes, while always a challenge, had been eased on the supply side following close collaboration between North Somerset Council and Homes England to get homes built.
Mike ended on the theme of the visitor economy. Banksy’s Dismaland was a revelation for Weston – leading to the redevelopment of the Tropicana music venue – it was also the springboard to Dolphin Square – a key asset helping to improve visitor spend in West on-super-Mare by encouraging families To stick around at the seaside resort, take advantage of the new eateries, tourist attractions and it’s new Cine World complex, leading to longer stays, more consumer spend and building a stronger local economy.
UWE Vice Chancellor and Chair of West of England LEP Steve West was next to take to the stage.
The theme of his 10-minute presentation was the government’s industrial strategy and the opportunities it presents for the West of England.
We already have the key assets said Steve. A reputation as a great place to live and work is among them, but we also have a number of innovation clusters that put us in pole position to take advantage of the government’s grand challenges.
In the field of Artificial Intelligence and data, we have Bristol University’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory and Bath’s Institute of Coding for example. In terms of future mobility, we are a testbed for autonomous vehicles. On meeting the challenge of an ageing population we have a specialist institute at UWE and more besides.
However, Steve was also quick to point out that in order to capitalise on these key assets, we need joined up thinking, reminding us all that competition from the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine is fierce.
Despite this, a number of recent developments in the region give reason for optimism - the WECA business plan, 5G testbed and MIPIM all being examples of this.
EDF ’s David Eccles gave an update in Hinkley Point C, demonstrating the huge economic impact the project has had on the West of England. As construction ramps up, 5000 workers will be on site in the next 18 months - a dramatic increase from the current figure of over 3000.
Simon Earles of Bristol Airport also spoke about future growth plans and the importance of transport connectivity before the evening ended with drinks and supper in the impressive surrounds of the Winter Gardens Pavilion events space.