Western Gateway - a roadmap for the West’s future economic success

Phil Smith
Managing Director | Business West
27th January 2020

At long last, the South West is beginning to get to grips with what this region stands for and how we wish to be seen by government.

At Business West we welcome this important self-examination of our region, when the focus of Whitehall seems firmly on the North.

It is difficult to avoid the constant trumpeting of the Northern Powerhouse. Good luck to them; but we must now decide how we in the South West wish to operate and be recognised both nationally and globally.

Will the newly announced Western Gateway be our answer to the Northern Powerhouse?

What we have yet to find out is what the Western Gateway is there for, and what is it actually going to do. As yet, we don’t really know the extent of its geography. Does it stretch to Cornwall?

And what about the Great South West construct, recently announced. How does this fit with the Western Gateway?

Will the government buy this geographic segmentation or will they demand a single South West and South Wales regional body?

What we do know is that if we don’t finally wake up to developing an organisation like this, the North, and all its attractiveness to the government, through winning so many seats in former Labour strongholds, will be in the pole position of political influence.

So, we need to grab this opportunity with both hands. We must not just act limply here in this region where, we have perhaps been seen as an area of wealth that needs little attention from government.

I am afraid that is far from the reality.

The Northern Powerhouse puts on a good optical front, so I think we need the Western Gateway to be as visible for us in Westminster.

We in the South West need to be seen to be standing alongside our MPs on our own two feet fighting for our share of government investment.

Bristol, Bath, Swindon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire are not, by themselves, necessarily big enough to attract interest from Perth in Australia, for instance, but the Western Gateway should have the assets and scale and a name with a ring to it that should be able to forge a worldwide presence.

Business needs to speak with one voice to ensure we get the maximum benefit from government policy and spending, and in Katherine Bennett of Airbus, the new chair of the Western Gateway, we have a very strong supporter from business.

She will need all our help, to decide on, to build upon and to sell, what is special about the South West.

If we fail to do this any new regional construct risks being all bluff and bluster with no substantive content.

What is so special about us here in the South West? What do we, or could we, lead the UK in? And in what are we, or could we be world class?

We already lead in aerospace. Perhaps we could also become the country’s leading region in tackling the climate crisis.

We have seen the green revolution centred on Stroud in Gloucestershire, which has determined to be the first carbon zero town in the UK and we at Business West are aiming to be carbon neutral for all our UK based operations by the end of the year.  We would be the first Chamber of Commerce in the UK to achieve this.

Yes, we know that skills are important and that productivity is very important too and our businesses and Local Enterprise Partnerships - with their local Industrial Strategies - are working on those. 

But a region-wide ambition to be at the cutting edge in tackling the global environmental agenda ought to attract more government patronage and at the same time give us a clear regional USP.

Could we achieve it? That is the big question.

On Brexit, my simplistic view is that we know the divorce is all but done, however, we must be keenly aware of the risks that the next round of trade negotiations might bring to our region’s key sectors. For example, our food and drink industry - how might our world famous Cheddar cheese industry be affected by new trading tariffs or regulations on UK dairy products? 

In addition to this macro view, we need to be on hand to help our individual member companies as the impact of these trade deals on their day to day operations becomes clearer.

Again, there is much bluff and bluster around Brexit support and I humbly suggest that Business West is one of the very few sources of objective and expert advice in this area. We have a national award recognition for our Trading Through Brexit programme to prove it. 

On infrastructure, I think we must get real in terms of our expectations from government apart from their very big, pet projects.

For instance, I could see the whole Stonehenge by-pass on/off project being delayed once again, through a combination of government funding regional prioritisation and proper questions about the long term needs to build more roads.

So instead, let’s play to our regional strengths and talk about the potential for 5G and communications, and living in lovely areas where people do not need to actually travel to go to work.

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