Nuclear opportunities, devolution and promising new markets on the agenda at the Initiative’s September meeting
St George’s in Great George Street was the stunning setting for the September meeting, and Initiative members received a warm welcome on one of the hottest evenings of the year from Suzanne Rolt, its Chief Executive.
Now one of the outstanding cultural centres in the city, St George’s dates back almost two hundred years and was designed by Sir Robert Smirke in the Greek Revival style, which he also applied to his most famous commission: the British Museum.
Suzanne also provided the audience with glimpses of the unique glass sculpture currently being created by internationally recognised Bristol based installation artist Luke Jerram, and which will hang as the centrepiece of the concert hall’s new extension. St George’s is currently raising funds to make all this possible, and offers businesses the opportunity to sponsor the work and take advantage of a range of corporate facilities – including use of the hall and crypt for events.
Taking a constructive stance on Brexit
Initiative President, Professor Steve West set the tone for business proceedings for the evening, pointing out that a great deal had happened, sub regionally and nationally, since the last gathering – fundamentally altering the context in which local businesses are now operating. Since March, we’ve seen a change of Government, a new Prime Minister, a new Bristol mayor and a referendum taking Britain out of the EU.
Bristol had been one of the cities which had voted to remain, but had been quick off the mark to bring together leaders from all sides in the wake of the decision and seize the opportunity to share the city’s thinking around a constructive exit strategy. The document that sprang out of those discussions carried the messages that Bristol is open, Bristol is international and we want to continue reaching out across Europe and the world.
There are also new people in place at the helm of the WE LEP – Stephen Robertson taking over the role of Chair from Colin Skellett, whom Steve thanked for his many years of hard work for the Partnership.
Steve went on to highlight the continuing success of the 91 Ways project, which involved connecting communities and cultures through different foods: there are 91 languages spoken in the city, and the project is celebrating that diversity. There are lots of ways for businesses to support this success.
Recent months have also seen the Bristol Doors Open event uncovering some of the city’s lesser-known architectural gems, while the huge popularity of the Bristol stage of the Tour of Britain showed the city at its very best to national and international audiences.
Capitalising on the devolution deal
Dr Patricia Greer, Interim CEO of the WE LEP, has taken the lead in steering the devolution deal, and she set out for the audience an overview and timetable of how the £900 million of new money will be allocated. About 18 months have so far been spent developing the deal and it was shaped around growing the sub-regional economy – and identifying and overcoming the particular barriers faced in getting things done.
The three key areas holding Bristol’s economy back for some time were well known: congestion, skills and housing. While the deal had been agreed in broad principle with three of the local authorities, negotiations on the finer details will be carrying on until mid October. After that, Royal Assent will be needed in Parliament at the end of the year and the elections for the new “Metro Mayor” (although that title may change) will proceed next May… a tight timetable by any reckoning.
Dr Greer emphasised the fact that this is very much “Deal One”, as Government has already indicated that further tranches of money could be negotiated in the future, although this will be dependent on results.
This, she said, is very much the first stage in the handover of control to the regions, and the £900 million allocated will be spent on those things we feel are needed most to grow our economy. By allocating single pots of money for areas such as transport, we will also be able to plan long term. The adult education budget will be devolved as from 2018, together with apprenticeship budgets, which allows us to decide locally what skills are needed for the future and ensure that shortages are met.
There’s also more money in the deal allocated to develop commercial opportunities locally – and attract the sort of businesses to the region that we believe can be of most benefit to our economy.
In James Durie’s words, summing up Dr Greer’s presentation, “We’ve pushed very hard for the local authorities to be ambitious on devolution – and we have had a great deal of support from key council figures on this. As a result, while we didn’t manage to win over every local authority, we now have priority status and far more control over our own destiny.
“This will reap dividends well into the future.”
Shaping Bristol for the better
James talked about the concept of “The City Office” which represents the greater collaboration now going on between the business community and the City, as well as outlining some of the continuing priorities for Bristol – not least the homelessness leading to some 60 people sleeping rough on our streets every night.
The much-needed improvements to our transport infrastructure are now in progress. Shorter term, this is manifesting itself in the city is currently suffering from a great deal of road works – but this is the short-term pain for the long term gain for a less congested city. Bristol Airport’s business offer is also expanding, and electrification of our rail network is proceeding – albeit at a slightly lower speed than we’d hoped. Smarter transport around the city will also rely on imaginative thinking in many other directions too, with examples including new agile minibus transport services.
Some eye-watering numbers had been produced showing just how many new houses will be needed to meet anticipated demand in the coming decades as a result of the growth we expect to see in jobs and businesses setting up here – but at least we now have some figures to work from… we just need to find a way to achieve them!
James also delivered updates on exciting progress being made for Destination Bristol, the Bristol Festival of Ideas and on how Bristol was taking a lead in combating modern slavery through a new social enterprise called “TISC”. New legislation now places obligations on larger businesses to ensure their supply chain is not employing slave labour. A conference on this for local companies is planned for November.
Tapping into the nuclear opportunities
Jessica Valentine set out some of the huge business implications of the Government’s decision, announced just hours before, to go ahead with the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. Jessica has been leading on this topic within the Initiative and described how three local LEPs, together with representatives from the private sector, are now working together under the umbrella of “Nuclear South West” to take advantage of £50 billion worth of business opportunities up-for-grabs for firms who can provide services for the nuclear industry in the region.
While the international and national focus on nuclear capability and expertise has normally been trained on the North West, she explained, there is now the opportunity for the South West to become a much bigger player, and for more businesses in the region to become part of the supply chain. Nuclear South West was playing a pivotal role in bringing businesses together and opening up doors.
New members, new connections, new markets
Initiative Manager Amie Vaughan took the platform to welcome four new members – Taylor Wimpey, Bouyges UK, AECOM and Harbour Hotels. She also outlined the opportunity for local companies to engage with UWE departments, as well as their students, by becoming Business Fellows. The first cohort of 40 of our members have just graduated and the next intake are currently being recruited. If you’d like to tap into this resource and become a Business Fellow, get in touch.
Finally, Sarah Hildersley, Overseas Business Network Advisor, talked about the impetus now being placed on helping local companies export to developing markets in Latin America and South East Asia, where we currently have very little penetration. This has become even more important in the wake of Brexit, as so much regional business is currently conducted with the EU.
Business West houses a wide range of sector and regional advisors, and can provide local companies with the resources and knowledge they need to seek out and secure export orders.
And coming next…
The next Initiative meeting will take place at the new Bristol Harbour Hotel on Thursday 8th December. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, who had planned to be talking to members for the September meeting, was instead flying the flag for Bristol in the US at a gathering of black leaders hosted by President Obama. He will now be the keynote speaker at the December gathering.