LEP round table: Working together means the future’s bright
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
“It’s about future-proofing the county where we can. We’re part of a discussion over Gloucestershire 2050 and a key aspect in the county is the airport at Staverton.”
Collaborative working to attract significant investment, help businesses grow; close the skills gap and future-proof the region is crucial to the Cotswolds’ economic success.
That’s according to four of the most influential business leaders in the area, who came together at the Growth Hub in Gloucester for a round-table discussion on everything from funding to infrastructure and future projects.
Cotswold Life Business & Professional Editor Tanya Gledhill chaired the day with Dev Chakraborty, Deputy Chief Executive of GFirst LEP; Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of OxLEP; Paddy Bradley, Director of SWLEP and Kevin Aisbitt, Manager of Worcester Business Central.
The region’s LEPs are working closely to create a region strong enough to rival the Midlands engine and northern powerhouse, winning significant Government and private sector funding, attracting key businesses and narrowing the skills gap across all sectors.
Far from working in silos, the emphasis is on collaboration from Worcestershire to Cornwall, and this spirit of working together to create a vibrant future is something that drives all four leaders.
Dev Chakraborty, Deputy Chief Executive of GFirst LEP, said nuclear energy was a particular focus in Gloucestershire, and that the LEP had been in talks with southern counties looking to the future.
“I don’t think businesses out there understand the levels of collaboration, and that’s something that we’re all proud of,” he said.
“Business doesn’t stop at borders, and if we can represent the region more strongly and as a larger area, it gives us a bit more firepower when we’re up against the Midlands engine and the northern powerhouse. When it’s right, we’ll collaborate with everybody.
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“In addition to the Science and Innovation Audit, the technologies institutes and Nuclear South West we’ve been working closely with West of England LEP and Heart of the South West LEP in Devon and Somerset, looking at the whole nuclear arena.”
Paddy Bradley, Director of SWLEP, called for more formal relationships and structures to be put in place, and said collaboration and shared resources were key if the LEPs wanted to be “serious” about the outcomes of the Local Industrial Strategies.
Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of OxLEP, talked about its Science and Innovation Audit, which included LEPs in the north of England.
And he said the LEP was also working closely with Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly LEP through its space agency programme, which will be of mutual benefit to businesses in Oxfordshire.
It’s on the back of the £8.4m growth deal to create the world’s first commercial deep-space communications station at Goonhilly Earth Station, capable of tracking future human and robotic missions to the moon and Mars.
The contract is funded through the LEP’s Growth Deal with the Government, via the European Space Agency and is a huge boost to the south-west’s space ambitions.
In addition, he said, the Spaceport Cornwall programme - which will be used to test a horizontal take-off-system - would be a platform for several businesses in Oxfordshire developing satellite technology.
“With Paddy, we’ve had a meeting with Cranfield University at Shrivenham because they’re right on the border,” Nigel added.
“They were coming to us to talk about their growth ambitions and we both said, it doesn’t matter what side of the border they’re on, come and talk to us together.
“For them it was quite difficult for them to get their heads round the fact that we weren’t competing. “I was saying to them, ‘if the best place for you is in Swindon and Wiltshire, we’ll support it. You just have to articulate what you want to do’.
“That reinforces the way that virtually all LEPs work. None of us are territorial. We’d rather see something secure investment and grow, than necessarily having to have it in our patch. It doesn’t matter.
“We get supply chain linkage and other opportunities for skills. If the housing east of Swindon develops in the way it should do, it’ll benefit our economy just as much as it will them.
“Places like Harwell will draw people in the way that Porton has. There’s much more maturity in those relationships than is perhaps visible.”
Kevin Aisbitt spoke about his previous career in the north east, where the development agency he worked for seemed to be competing with other parts of the UK.
He said: “What was interesting was that when, through the Economic Strategy, when we really focused in on what we were strong in, in terms of research, actually we weren’t competing.
“We were promoting what we classed as world-class, so it was helping us with stem cell research and renewable technologies.
“We were investing in facilities and could show the pathway from research to other technologies, including off-shore, and suddenly we had a story to tell. Whereas before, there was no story to tell.”
In Worcestershire, he said, with the lack of a research university, the focus had to be on finding centres of excellence.
And to that end, he had recently taken a group of companies up to the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, to plant the seed of growth through innovation.
Paddy added: “It’s a case of trying to rebalance the country, from the London south east centric bit, and make it more balanced.
“Certainly the Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford corridor is a fantastic collar of strength and opportunity because of the long-standing institutions are there.
“You’ve got huge urban populations around London and a pretty big one around Bristol and into south Wales - for me, the M4 corridor is the lifeblood of the country.”
Visit Britain predicts the UK will have a tourism industry worth more than £257bn by 2025 - just under 10% of GDP and supporting 3.8m jobs.
Tourism is vital to the region.
Here, a new project, The Great West Way, is under way thanks to VisitWiltshire.
The body is developing a new touring route, 125 miles long, which will join up many of the south west’s iconic destinations along a corridor west of London, through to Bristol.
“It’s a great tourist project,” said Paddy Bradley. “It’s about how slowly you can travel through the west country - a corridor, a wide corridor, taking in great tourist spots from London to Bristol and Stonehenge.
“It’s aimed at trying to attract and keep people from the UK visitors and overseas in this area, which is absolutely vital.”
He asked how tourism could fit into a Local Industrial Strategy.
“It’s simple,” said Nigel Tipple “It’s fundamental to place. And place matters. Yes, it drives significant wealth and it creates lots of employment, but it’s fundamental to place.”
Around 10% of Gloucestershire’s economy is tourism-related, along with the key sectors of cyber, advanced engineering and manufacturing.
“It’s a mountain range,” said Dev Chakraborty. “Tourism, it’s not Everest, but it is the foothills.”
The Cotswolds are a hotbed for renewable energy and alternative fuel sources.
Johnson Matthey, based outside Swindon, manufacture “the clever bit” of fuel cells, said Paddy Bradley.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to travel from London to Bristol using any form of renewable vehicle - electric or hydrogen,” he said. “How can you travel along that route without worrying about how you’re going to refuel your vehicle?
“And that will involve Oxford and the Thames Valley and ourselves and potentially north up to GFirst. That technology can be based in this area.
GFirst is looking at a 10-year transport plan, working with other LEPs to develop new forms of transport and improve existing facilities.
“It’s about future-proofing the county where we can,” said Dev Chakraborty.
“We’re part of a discussion over Gloucester 2050 and a key aspect in the county is the airport at Staverton.
“It’s the 10th busiest airport in the country and we’ve invested £2.5m into improving the facilities there and creating new roads so they can build new hangars.
“Because looking to the future, and driverless cars, who knows when they’ll create flying cars.
“How many years down the road is that going to be?”
He cited the development of Filton Airport in Bristol as a “one of the biggest mistakes”.
“If we can protect our asset, then we should,” he added. “Because once you build on it, like Filton, there’s no going back.
On the Wiltshire-Dorset border, near Shaftesbury, sits Gilo Industries. The company builds propulsion and rotary-powered engines and applies those to vehicles in innovative ways.
Its SkyQuad, for example, is the world’s first practical flying car.
Nigel Tipple discussed Oxford’s fully autonomous cars.
Running on normal highways, with M40 trials under way, they’ve been developed with public-private sector partnership money and technology thanks to the University of Oxford, city and county councils and Oxford Nominet.
YouTube clips show the cars, fitted with Oxbotica software, driving through Summertown.
“They’re learning as they run,” he added. “They’ve got three or four cars running but they have to have a driver in them, because they’ve found iif a car pulls up by the side of you at traffic lights and there’s no one in the driver’s seat, it causes some degree of confusion.
“It’s a bit like Robot Wars: they’re operating and they’re learning,” added Nigel.
“They’re learning to distinguish between a lamp post and a child standing on the side of the road who may walk out.
“In the Didcot Garden Town, they are looking at how they build the technology and the sensors into the roadways and then into the houses, so as technology changes, they don’t have to dig up the road.”
London has had it too good for too long.
That was the message from the panel as Dev Chakraborty revealed GFirst had supported Channel 4’s bid to move its HQ out of London, touting Gloucester Docks as a possible site.
But he said it was the railways, rather than roads, that needed targeted investment.
“We’ve put money into refurbishing Cheltenham Spa and Gloucester railway stations, but it needs more,” he said.
“Whatever we can get out of Government, you could almost times it by five to invest in it. But the quicker people can get from London to our patches, the better for all of us, the better for all our businesses.”
Paddy Bradley said it was “eminently do-able” to pull businesses out of London, particularly with the electricifacriton of the line through Wiltshire, but sub-regionally, work needed to be done and rising fares had to be addressed.
Discussions centred around the new £22m Worcester Parkway Station, due to open this winter, and the wider benefits to the region of a connected rail network.
“That’ll impact on the North Cotswold Line structure too,” added Nigel Tipple.
“We’re supporting that with additional passing provision, so you can have stopping and express services from Oxford. We’ve got a number of communities along there, and for us, getting people from there into Oxford is vital.
“The only way we can do that is to support the Hereford ambition, via Worcester and increase movement of express train services.”
Paddy suggested one way forward was to take Network Rail funding out of the equation and seek third-party investment instead.
“The need to build stations around the country is huge, and the public money to do that is declining,” he said. “Do the maths.”
Nigel cited the £140m Chiltern Railways investment in a new station linking Oxford to Marylebone, leading to six express services per hour.
“The private sector could see value in investing in that,” he said. “We’ve seen a similar scheme with Network Rail and GWR, improving the station and investing in new parking. That’s about the ability to invest with franchise arrangements so you’re not benefiting one operator, you’re benefiting them all.
“Passing provision though Oxfordshire benefits Oxford but also Swindon and on to the south west. And again, we can’t do that on our own: we need to build a business case.
“We’ve got a significant growth corridor around Wantage and Grove, with 5,500 thousand houses going in there. We’ve made 10,000 jobs. There’s an opportunity to reinstate some of those stations that used to be there. We’re pushing for it. Economically it’s worth it, it opens up a new employment corridor and creates more connections and we’re making a business case in advance and feeding it into Network Rail’s business plan, because it allows us to accelerate the process rather than wait. Didcot-Swindon connection.”
Skills and apprenticeships
A key question for the panel was the regional skills shortage and calls were made for well-designed, standards-driven apprenticeships.
Paddy Bradley welcomed a small skills gap as a sign of a healthy economy, but acknowledged the region’s was too wide.
“There are people out there to do [the jobs] and they exist both in universities in businesses,” he said.
“The challenge is attracting people and retaining them into STEM subjects. It’s a harder sell, but the rewards are greater. In terms of future prosperity, they’re the subject to pursue, particularly in cyber security.”
Industry-backed apprenticeships were seen as vital in equipping the next generation, and Paddy cited Dyson - which runs its programme through the University of Warwick - as an example of an employer taking the job seriously.
“If you look at degree-level apprenticeships, the ones that are working really well are the ones that have the highest employer engagement,” said Nigel Tipple.
He cited global data analytics company Nielsen in Oxford as a good example.
“Their technology platform is all about apprenticeships,” Nigel added. “Because they’re developing a workforce of the future in cyber security and IT platforms.
“But it’s not just in cyber security, it has a applications in tourism too. We’re looking at VR, in terms of the ability to see Oxfordshire before you get here. We need really tech-savvy young people.”
Dev Chakraborty spoke about how Gloucestershire College was working closely with GE Aviation and Renishaw on apprenticeship programmes, along with Berkeley College collaboration with companies like Schneider and Ecotricity.
“The time it takes to set up employer led-apprenticeship schemes is long, and that’s why it tends to be big businesses involved,” said Paddy.
“We haven’t quite worked it out in this country, we haven’t quite worked it into our DNA, and sometimes the skills are determined by the providers as opposed to the users of the system. We’re trying to widen the spectrum and get that genuine employer engagement through degree-level apprenticeships and higher level apprenticeships.”
Nigel called for employer engagement and closer working when it came to creating courses.
“It’s about the educators understanding, because quite often we’ve got great teaching staff who have never worked in industry.” he said. “They go to college or university, get a teaching qualification and they go teach. But they don’t understand what it’s like to work in different industries.They can’t communicate it, can’t enthuse it. Investing in skills is a journey. It’s about employers articulating what they want. And it’s a journey that’s starting to bear fruit.”