Shadow Housing Secretary Thangam Debbonaire gives address at October Bristol & West of England Initiative meeting

James Durie
Chief Executive - Bristol Chamber & Initiative | Business West
2nd October 2020

The Bristol West MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Housing Thangam Debbonaire was the latest key decision maker in the Bristol city region to address Bristol & West of England Initiative members in response to COVID-19.

“I’m nervous at your faith that I can decide what the future is!” Ms Debbonaire said somewhat self-effacingly as she was introduced by President Richard Bonner, adding “these are difficult times, and we need to acknowledge that.”

Although the fast-moving situation makes planning ahead, both in business and in Parliament, difficult, the MP continued, one thing that can be said with certainty is the fact that “in the west country we’ve got incredibly talented people and wonderful organisations to take on the challenges of today and tomorrow.” A message that will have no doubt resonated with Bristol & West of England Initiative members, who for more than 30 years have worked in partnership with city leaders to enable this region flourish. 

Following a brief introduction, the Shadow Housing Secretary then turned her attention to key issues that need to be solved locally, including “the broken housing system”, climate crisis, the challenges and benefits of digitisation and more pressingly helping the enormous numbers of businesses in the region adapt to life after COVID-19.

Assessing the government’s response to solving the latter, the Labour MP said of Rishi Sunak’s Winter Economy Plan that it “had some good stuff in it” but lacked detail on how to “bridge from where we are now to the things we want to achieve.” Specifically, Ms Debbonaire was referring to the issue of saving jobs, such as those in hospitality or events industry, adding that it would now require city and business leaders to work together to fill in the gaps of government support.

Ms Debbonaire ended her address by encouraging Initiative members and partners assembled for the meeting to continue to work together to overcome our collective challenges in the face of COVID-19.

In addition to the Bristol West MP, Initiative members also heard updates from Stephen Bashford, Director of Business and Skills at WECA and Sally Hogg from Bristol City Council Public Health Team.

Stephen Bashford gave an insightful rundown of activities undertaken by the West of England economic taskforce set up in light of CVOID-19. Earlier this year, Mayor Tim Bowles was asked by the Prime Minister to establish and lead a taskforce in order to spearhead the regional economic recovery. 

Reflective of this, and with the work shortly being published Stephen recounted the taskforce’s objective, which is to “Build back better by capitalising on our ingenuity, creativity and diversity to create good jobs and a high quality of life for all our resident, whilst achieving sustained emission reductions." 

In strategic terms, the rationale behind the taskforce was twofold he said, a) to develop a coordinated economic response to coronavirus across the region and b) ensure we have a strong and consistent message to central government reflecting the challenges and opportunities we face.

The taskforce has ambitious goals set against 5 principle areas of focus. By 2021 it is aiming to achieve:

  • 11,200 businesses supported,
  • £90m investment in innovation locally,
  • a pipeline of new projects worth £300m,
  • 1,800 jobs created in the region (including 750 in construction),
  • 22,000 new training and placement opportunities,
  • the extension of careers advice to 95 schools and colleges,
  • 10,000 online mental health at work courses delivered,
  • 60 new low carbons grants awarded,
  • and £320m invested into infrastructure.

Turning attention away from the economic response to the public health response to the virus and its impact in Bristol, Sally Hogg from Bristol City Council Public Health team provided a valuable update to businesses on the current state of play. 

As of 1st October, there were 21.4 cases of coronavirus per 100k in Bristol – a figure which is comparatively low when compared to the 56.6 per 100,000 case average for England.

Against this background, Sally reassured businesses that the situation is under control in the city, with the numbers registered some way off those in areas where local lockdowns have been imposed. In these areas the number of cases per 100,000 typically exceeds 200 shed said. In Newcastle for example, where a local lockdown was announced earlier this week, there are 257.8 cases per 100,000.

The R-rate in the South West is the second lowest rate in the country Sally added, giving businesses hope that by following the advice and regulations future local lockdown restrictions in the Bristol city region could be avoided.

Bristol & West of England Initiative Managers Victoria Matthews and Nina Skubala also updated members on various activities that the Initiative is currently involved in, such as Business West’s newly launched Back to Business campaign and supporting Thrive at Work

Nina Skubala spoke briefly about the Bristol One City economic recovery and renewal strategy, which is a plan to align activity across the city in response to coronavirus. The strategy will launch on 16th October and will be debated at the upcoming Festival of Economics she added.

Following updates from our speakers, members took part in a lively Q&A session with the Bristol West MP and the other contributors. 

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    Provides an effective link between private and public sectors to ensure the interests of commerce are considered in key decision making.