Is the West of England recognised as a place to invest or are we invisible?

Steve West
President of Bristol Chamber of Commerce & Initiative at Business West
26th April 2017

We are a successful diverse and vibrant City region with huge opportunity to be even better than we are. Bristol is at the heart the West of England connecting to Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. Combined we are the cultural and economic powerhouse of the South West and are rightly recognised as a great place to live, work and develop ideas and businesses.

We are a net contributor to the Treasury but this alone doesn’t deliver the punch or influence we need when arguing with Westminster for investment. To them we appear fragmented and unable to get big ideas turned into action.

To change this perception we need clarity about what we are,  what we do and what our ambition is for our future. A compelling argument that can be understood and can excite, engage multiple audiences.

We can be more productive more innovative and Government could get back more from us. But it requires courage and ambition and an argument to invest more. 

So government: Why not back a winner? Invest and see the return on that investment grow at a faster rate than it would elsewhere in the country?

Nuancing this message and exciting government and private investors sufficiently requires effort, passion, co-ordination and agreement across our City region. A single narrative everyone uses to punch home key messages.

The Metro Mayor provides an opportunity to galvanise around a vision and plan we can all back. A compelling  vision that creates an urgency and a set of expectations to deliver a credible and timely plan that we, Westminster and other investors would be mad not to back.

Bristol City Region is an attractive place to be but to be sustainable and more equal we need to join things up better so that any individual or organisation looking to relocate or build a business would look at Bristol City Region first.

However, as others power ahead selling their vision we are still working on ours. There is no doubt that we are slowly getting there but we need to move much faster to break through and be clear about our future. I keep hearing about the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine when frankly we have far more to offer but will be left behind.

We have a fantastic history, strong innovation, enterprise in technologies, creative industries, science and engineering. We have world class universities complementing and collaborating with each other offering  pipelines for both talent development, research, innovation and enterprise.

Our regional economy is served by clusters of multiple industry sectors. We have a strong sense of place with well established industries including cultural, digital creatives, health and bio-sciences,  silicone-chip technologies, aerospace and service industry sectors including finance and legal services.

We have new emerging sectors including green technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence, driverless cars, composites new materials and additive manufacturing, high power computing, nuclear sciences and new propulsion systems including electric. By any measure a rich diverse economy where we attract and retain talent.

But we don’t yet have the narrative or the tag-line that will stick in peoples minds. We need to capture our vision in two or three words.

The West of England is unique a high energy fusion bringing together different elements which react to create new futures. Perhaps we should describe it as Bristol Fusion?

The fact of the matter is that we need something to build our story around. If we don’t have it, ministers and civil servants will lose interest with the lack of a compelling and easy to recognise and remember narrative. Without our narrative they will fill in the gaps and probably get it wrong! They will put us together in a clumsy fashion with the South West purely because it is easy to remember.

So what are our asks if we have a compelling vision? 

We have poor digital and transport infrastructure with low resilience across our cities - between Bath and Bristol quickly becoming grid locked in part because we are over reliant on roads and cars with pretty hopeless independent public infrastructure which separates different transport means. Compare us to many cities across the world and we are hopeless.

And yet, we have some real assets – a growing international airport and a sea-port but the infrastructure that serves them is embarrassing. If we are serious about creating sustainable green environments we have to think about how we connect our assets and build for the future. We have had years of thinking about deep infrastructure but have achieved very little. Other City Regions have put in trams or a metro – where is ours?

We talk about big ideas and then we fiddle around the edges and make poor compromises. So, the big ask in the run up to a general election would be for infrastructure and funding which allows us to connect and achieve a digital broadband infrastructure that works for all and is fit for a digital creative economy and also to connect the airport, the sea-port and our communities with modern, fast transport links taking pressure off our inadequate roads.

There is something about a big idea which says, fundamentally, we must re-think how we get around Bristol as a City Region. And how we connect to the rest of the UK. That is a big ask and requires significant funding – way more than the current devolution deal offers.

As we look to the future we need to think the impossible and then work it through: is it really impossible or is it possible if we take courageous decisions? We are now facing some very big challenges around affordable housing, green belt  and employment land, skills and adult health and social care.

Working together the four unitary authorities have a critical mass which starts to look like Manchester or Birmingham and to government that is very important. Suddenly our population of over a million matters and finding solutions for housing and employment, skills and Health and Social Care is important. We now have to think bigger than ever before. If we start to join up our natural geographies and economic flows we play in Cardiff and Newport as well and suddenly the electrification of rail from London to Cardiff is critical.

The Cardiff/Newport access then starts you thinking about how we might use the Severn Estuary. How we work together on big ideas that utilise one of our greatest natural assets.

Our future must deliver investment from private and public partnerships. We must all work together to find solutions to our challenges. There is no reason why we cant lead the way – be the test bed for innovation, new construction, new sustainable cities.

Our Metro Mayor must be able to challenge government and broker deals with Westminster and Cardiff. If we fail in that we are not going to realise our potential. In one term of four years, we must be realistic about what a Metro Mayor can achieve but what they can do is to start to set the tone and craft a vision - one that is ambitious, courageous, confident, collaborative and catalytic.

As this is done we must face up to challenges. We are a City Region where there is huge education opportunity and great progression from schools to colleges and into universities or into higher level apprenticeships and skills training, but this is not universal as is not for all. Why not?

It is simply not acceptable that we are outperformed by almost every other City Region in the UK. This is not new but we haven’t managed to find the sustainable solution and we need to focus on sorting this as it is the key to our future in a global knowledge economy.

Westminster will rightly challenge  us to find high calibre local leaders who can deliver a very different future. The big danger for Government is that over time they devolve a huge amount of decision making and money to regions that have  limited capacity and capability to make it work. Real devolution to the regions requires a capacity and capability talent pool alongside inspirational leadership which at least equals London.

Do we have the capacity to deliver and make the difference?

I think the leadership is there but we need it to step up and support the future more visibly. We have very good leaders across the West of England but they are busy leading very successful organisations. Are they willing and able to move away to help do a bigger job? That is a huge ask.

In Bristol, we think we are really successful but lots of our leading sector industries do not have their head office here, we do not have the the decision makers on our door step and that is a problem for us.

The time frames we thought we are playing by are shrinking - things are happening much faster now. Brexit is a potential burning platform, an ageing population is another challenge but alongside that artificial intelligence, new technologies and manufacturing will change jobs and open opportunities and new futures.

In the West of England we are working hard to get businesses to innovate and export. We  must encourage and  invest in that. Our SMEs need support and need to be confident about the UKs future as they look to grow. We need to be confident and build on our heritage – the success of our digital creatives, high technology design and manufacturing, education, research and development and services is plain to see. The rest of the world recognise us as a hugely creative and innovative region and we need to exploit this and build our knowledge economy for the future.

We have the potential to be the best City Region in the UK where all of our citizens benefit and where we are seen globally as place that has got it right.

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