Business will need to speak up for the West to fulfil its potential
While there’s plenty to feel positive about in 2016, says James Durie, Chief Executive of Bristol Chamber & Initiative at Business West, and we start the year with a real sense of momentum and energy in the Bristol & Bath city region, there are some significant risks ahead that could hold us back from competing and fulfilling our economic potential.
Chief Executive of Bristol Chamber & West of England Initiative at Business West
Personally I’m a “half glass full” sort of person, and I think we have taken some great strides forward over this past year. Just have a look around the place and you’ll see the number of cranes and scale of investment going into our infrastructure. Look at our universities, Airport, Ashton Gate Stadium and also the £200m metro bus scheme, including the long awaited South Bristol Link, all underway. Rail electrification (despite budget overrun) continues to progress, and I see its effect already having real impact. As European Green Capital I think the city very successfully helped show how we all shift to more sustainable urban living , whilst welcoming huge numbers of visitors from across the world. Our Enterprise Zone (which is set to expand) continues to attract lots of newcomers, new major speculative development and the Bristol Arena moves ever closer.
But there’s also a “half glass empty” perspective which should stop us from feeling too self satisfied.
Some huge decisions are in the offing, which could derail so much of the progress we’ve made. My concern is that business, and the local economy, stands to lose out significantly if these decisions are made just on narrow party political lines, and too often a short term outlook. As business, we must play our part to help inform the debate.
In May, Bristol will vote to elect a new Mayor, whilst in March, Bath & North East Somerset will have decided on whether they want one of their own or not.
While we certainly wouldn’t go as far as to take sides, I feel that it’s in the interests of the city region that, whoever is in office from May, will recognise that business drives the local economy… and that we want and need to be actively involved in shaping the long term future. That’s why we will be putting a business manifesto to the candidates, setting out how we want them to operate, and what we want them to focus on.
On a not-unrelated topic, city region devolution is a prize not without its challenges, but one which we are clear the four unitary authorities must meet in order to better position this place for new and significant borrowing powers and more joined up working. The time for action is now and it’s an opportunity we cannot afford to miss out on.
The Joint Spatial & Transport Plans to 2036, being developed by our 4 councils, are the opportunity for us all to work together towards shaping a common view and picture of sustainable long term growth – we simply need more housing, more employment land and much better supporting infrastructure.
Lastly, the EU referendum will soon be with us. This is something of huge importance for the UK. Our recent survey of over 1,000 of our members has shown just how significant it is to our firms and we are and will be playing a role to set out the pros and cons to better inform the debate for us all.
Business needs to play its part in shaping and informing these discussions. My organisation and members will be making our voices heard, but we simply need more business leaders to get involved and speak out too: political decisions like these are far too important to be left just to the politicians.