Rupert Cox: Problem solving in Somerset

Rupert Cox, Chief Exec Royal Bath and West of England Society (c) Jeremy Long / JCL PHOTOGRAPHY

Rupert Cox, Chief Exec Royal Bath and West of England Society (c) Jeremy Long / JCL PHOTOGRAPHY - Credit: Archant

Rupert Cox considers some radical problem solving

Nearly two decades have passed since my life was focused on lobbying and influencing politicians on the need to create a competitive environment for Somerset business by improving the county’s infrastructure. Namely through broadband and mobile connectivity, the A303, the A358, rail links, access to markets, the promotion of Somerset as a place to do business, business rates and so on. The sad reality is that very little has changed when it comes to making Somerset an ideal county from where to do business.

While most of the county has improved broadband, technology has moved so fast that this is now not good enough for many aspiring high-tech small businesses, who cannot afford a lease-line and mobile coverage is still spasmodic.

The ridiculous political charade that is the dualling of the A303 and A358 only seems to be a big issue when politicians need to be elected to Westminster, with those wishing to block such progress using the piles of rocks that is Stonehenge as the ultimate deal-breaker.

While our railway stations have improved, it still costs more to take the train from Castle Cary to Paddington and back ‘on-peak’ than to fly to Switzerland and no one is actively promoting Somerset as a great place to do business.

While Government has been kind to the small retailers with regard business rate exemption, the Valuation Office is once again circling business premises like a hungry shark looking to help fill the coffers of the councils.

Beware the ‘golden goose’ that is Hinkley Point C. It is vitally important that we have balance in our economy and not over rely on short-termism. It is a 10-year project that could really push our county to the forefront of the nuclear power industry, but managed poorly, could be the catalyst for boom and bust during which the labour supply is even tighter than it is now, thwarting the growth of businesses across the county who cannot service the mega-project.

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Quite rightly, more houses are being built to home the younger generation who choose to stay in Somerset to stop the county becoming a retirement dormitory, but with limited thought on where they will work or how they will move about.

I love our county town, but on a Sunday morning shopping visit in November I was reminded of some of the embarrassing scenarios that Taunton has to offer. The site of the old livestock market is still derelict, when just eight miles down the motorway Junction 23 is thriving after 10 years of investment. The only developments around that site are built on car parks not the plentiful brownfield space.

Sainsbury’s car park was gridlocked at 2pm. It took an hour to get out of the car park as the traffic flow to the motorway and into the town had come to a standstill, so what on earth will happen when the Garden City expansion is complete at Norton Fitzwarren and Heathfield?

Time for radical thinking not reactionary problem-solving from a unitary council that serves the whole county.

Our county’s strategic leadership is stifled by the continued protectionism of two-tier local government where district authorities have little interest in anything else in the county, other than that which is right under their noses.

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Rupert Cox is the CEO of the Royal Bath and West Society. For more from Rupert, follow him on Twitter! @rupert_rbw