We are seeing a major shift in how the UK is governed. Scotland, Wales and cities across England have been transferred new powers and responsibilities, which has given local residents across the UK the power to have a say in their future like never before. In 2016, the West of England signed its own devolution deal, reigning in greater economic and spending powers from Whitehall. This represents a golden opportunity to gain greater control of our economic future and Business West is working tirelessly to ensure that devolution is done right.
A world class regional economy requires world class infrastructure to facilitate long-term sustainable growth. Businesses rely on ‘hard’ infrastructure such as efficient transport networks in order to distribute goods and services and to attract skilled workers to regions.
‘Soft’ infrastructure is also vital for businesses to thrive. This describes the various different resources and success factors that facilitate business growth in regions and includes business relations, such as networks and associations, access to funding and a skilled labour pool. On both accounts, our region suffers from low levels of infrastructure spending. London receives over 10 times more per head than the South West in publicly funded infrastructure. This needs to change. It is the role of Business West’s policy unit to engage local and national decision makers and encourage them to prioritise and pledge their support for priority improvement areas.
Our region suffers from under investment in transport – despite suffering from significant problems of traffic congestion and a lack of transit connectivity. In government transport spending London benefits from £2,595 per head, compared to £17 per head in the South West – 150 times more. Despite the recent announcement of a number of major transport schemes, the current state of our transport network remains poor, with low levels of investment and inadequate public transport provision resulting in increased journey times for residents, commuters and visitors alike. This presents a significant barrier to local growth and creates a negative image for the region, which presents a further challenge to tourism and investment in the region. Bristol is frequently referred to as one of the most congested cities in the UK, whilst Wiltshire, Swindon, Bath and Gloucestershire all suffer from major transport bottlenecks and delays.
We are working to solve these problems and reduce spending disparities by:
- Encouraging central government to deliver key national and regional infrastructure ensuring infrastructure spending more closely matches the economic contributions of England’s cities, towns and regions
- Addressing the key infrastructural hurdles that stops our region functioning
Our area stands to benefit from some previously announced investments in rail, notably the electrification of the line between London, Swindon, Bath and Bristol. We have also agreed two new projects to deliver better rail services around the Bristol city region – thanks to the proposals contained in Metro West 1 and 2, due to be rolled out in 2019 and 2021. Nevertheless, the government’s flagship investments in HS2 and HS3 will not benefit our region – and in the case of Bristol and Bath, may actually lead to economic losses. Furthermore, we are many years behind other cities in our planning and delivery of a functional city region rail system. Our area needs better connectivity and services in its commuter rail and freight networks in order to cope with capacity and the pressures of growth. We would also benefit from better direct connectivity to our closest core cities of Cardiff and Birmingham, other high knowledge and high growth Southern towns and cities and into HS2 and Crossrail.
Regional airports are critical to the infrastructure of the South West. In the region that we cover, Bristol Airport connects the region to over 100 international destinations. Bristol is the ninth largest airport in the UK with over six million people passing through in 2013. In the context of the current national focus on Heathrow and Gatwick, regional airports must not fall behind as they have proven to be a lynchpin for local growth, spurring jobs and investment.
Digital connectivity has never been more important for businesses in the region, with increasing demand for web-based services and access to information. The UK government has set a target for everyone in the UK to be able to access broadband speeds of at least 2 megabits per second (Mbps) and for 95% of the UK to receive far greater speeds (at least 24Mbps) by 2017. However, the UK target does not compare favourably with many other EU countries, with more ambitious upload speed targets elsewhere in the continent. Here in the South West, broadband connectivity is vital given the rural context, with firms consistently telling us of the strain put upon them by limited digital connectivity, especially in rural areas of Gloucestershire, North and North East Somerset and Wiltshire. The government has recognised the need to upgrade the country’s digital infrastructure, but issues still remain within the marketplace which the government must address.
A fundamental concern for businesses across the UK is the security and affordability of energy supply in a changing global marketplace. We are at a pivotal moment in the historical development of the energy industry, as the transition from traditional fossil fuel sources to a diverse mix of renewable sources begins to gather pace. Nationally, a long term strategy must aim to create an efficient, secure and cost-effective supply whilst committing to meet carbon reduction targets. In the South West we have seen the approval of Hinkley Point C, the UK’s first new nuclear power station in almost 20 years. This should generate a stable source of clean power for nearly 6 million homes once it is up and running and will provide 25,000 jobs during construction. Our region is home to a burgeoning renewable energy and environmental technologies sector, with approximately 4, 250 active businesses employing around 78,000 people. We are working to ensure that the government provides greater certainty for these growing businesses to invest and thrive in the South West and beyond.
According to PWC housing costs are Bristol’s major economic weakness, and the lack of a sufficient supply of well located and affordable homes remains a significant weakness for our economy and society. The region’s housing stock is becoming increasingly unaffordable particularly when measured against local wages, making it harder for businesses to recruit and retain talented people. Rapidly growing housing costs also diminish our attractiveness as a region, making it harder for new businesses to thrive and less able to compete with other parts of the UK and the world. With a growing population our region needs to create housing that is genuinely affordable, across a full range of incomes and tenures, in order to sustain future growth that works in the interests of all businesses and their employees.
Skills & Employment
Firms can only perform as well as the people that start, run and work in them, and to thrive we must see work ready talent coming out of our schools, colleges and universities. Businesses tell us of the current mismatch between the skills and abilities that they need and those of the young people coming out of our education system. We need an education system that adequately prepares young people with the knowledge and basic industry experience to successfully make the transition from education to the workplace. To overcome this loss of potential, steps must be taken by both education and business to ensure young people are equipped with industry knowledge and experience to succeed.
The UK’s current trade deficit acts as a stumbling block to long term economic recovery. The government has set an ambitious target of £1 trillion exports by 2020 which, if achieved, will reaffirm the UK as a global powerhouse. But for the country to grasp this target more businesses must open their eyes to the opportunities in front of them and seek to expand internationally.
Investing in Place
Our region has made great progress in the regeneration of our town and city centres. Thirty years ago our city centres were places people actively avoided, now they are a key selling point of our region to people and investors and are central to driving economic growth. Leisure, culture and investment in public assets, high quality building and public spaces are all reasons why residents in our region enjoy such a high quality of living. Our world class culture and arts sets us apart globally and draws talent and investment to the region. Bristol, Bath and the South West are regularly voted as some of the best places to live and visit in the UK. Business West and our members have long understood the importance of cultural investment, place making and high quality urban planning, having played an active part in the region’s regeneration over the years. Together we remain steadfastly committed to doing so.