Now is the time for the South West to get its voice heard
Businesses in every sector and of all types are facing a range of challenges as the South West continues to recover from an unprecedented chain of events.
From a global pandemic to soaring inflation, entrepreneurs and owner managers have had to deal with a number of trials and tribulations over recent years.
But there are still plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about the future prospects for the South West and its economy.
The region has one of the strongest economies of the UK and cities such as Exeter are tipped to recover faster and stronger from the downturn than many other population centres in other parts of the country.
And despite the feeling that the region is often left behind when it comes to help from central government, the South West is still blessed with some of the biggest infrastructure schemes in the country from nuclear power stations to off-shore wind farms.
The Businessdesk.com with the support of Womble Bond Dickinson, an international law firm based in Bristol, brought together a panel of business leaders and experts to discuss the prospects and challenges facing the economy in the region.
The firm has a strong history of advising on some of the largest planning and infrastructure projects in the UK.
Working across the energy, transport, aviation and the public sector, the team positively engages with clients, key stakeholders and communities, to find sustainable and innovative solutions for the delivery of growth-enabling projects.
Womble Bond Dickinson has a large planning and infrastructure practice in Bristol, the firm’s second largest UK office.
The panel came from a range of backgrounds and businesses but all spoke along similar themes.
Tegan McKernon is an account executive leader at Marsh Commercial. Her role means she is talking to businesses from every sector about their daily needs and challenges.
Based in Gloucestershire, Tegan works across the region and believes the diversity of the South West is one of its key strengths.
She said: “That diversity and spread of businesses across the region stops us being too severely affected by any particular factor or challenge.”#
“Bristol obviously has a very strong economy and according to most of the forecasts it will grow faster and stronger than many of the other regional cities in the next two to three years. The hope is that growth will then filter out to the rest of the region.
“In our Bristol office we are seeing a lot more corporate clients while in Plymouth it is a lot more community level. We are working with smaller businesses particularly in the hospitality and entertainment sectors.”
Claire Pearce has made the move from the public to the private sector and is now the director of planning and economic development at Gravity in Somerset.
Her job sees her talking to businesses who are thinking of moving into the region.
And she understands that the picture is mixed across the South West when it comes to prosperity.
Claire said: “The region as whole has some really significant strengths but at grass roots level there are still some underlying weaknesses; there are parts of the region such as Somerset and Devon where there are serious pockets of deprivation. We do have economic restructuring issues and some sectors are forecast to decline.
“But there is a real opportunity around economic transformation and restructuring; I think the South West is more progressive in terms of some of the other regions in the UK.
“The outlook is really promising and healthy, but we need to make the most of the opportunities that come our way.”
She added that levelling-up needs to take place on a local as well as at a regional level for it to make lasting change.
Claire said: “The key point is to make sure we disperse the opportunities across the whole of the region so everyone can benefit.
“One of the strengths of the region is its diversity but it is also one of its weaknesses, that is why business leadership and strategy in the region is so important for its future prosperity.”
John Wilkinson is a newly appointed director at the Western Gateway partnership. In the first few months in his new role, he has been meeting business and civic leaders across the South West and South Wales.
He said: “There is also a new partnership emerging in the South West for Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. I think it sits well alongside what we are doing here at the Western Gateway.
“Having two pan-regional organisations probably makes a lot more sense than former models. I think it is a better representation of the area and its needs.
“In the last few weeks I have been incredibly encouraged by the level of ambition and the optimism about the journey ahead for all of us in the South West and the willingness to get to grips with some of the big issues we face.”
One of the biggest areas for growth is the renewable and green energy sector but John added that the South West needs to work harder to get its voice heard.
He added: “The biggest challenge we face is that the levelling up debate is very polarised between the North and South of the country. The accepted wisdom is that the North always gets the most money.
“We need to shout much louder in the South West, we have got huge opportunity here in the region and we need to part of the national conversation.”
Ric Hampton is the regional director for Hydrock in the South West and works on projects from Cornwall to Gloucestershire.
He said: “The differences across the region in terms of economic activity can make it a challenging for a national business such as ours. We need to make sure we are targeting the right sectors and the right clients.
“There is a real challenge but conversely there is also a real opportunity for a diverse business such as Hydrock. As a diverse business with a wide range of skills and experience we can work in lots of different areas.”
Womble Bond Dickinson partner Jonathan Bower believes a mixture of infrastructure and renewable energy projects could be key to unlocking future prosperity.
He said: “The number of infrastructure projects that we are working on in this area and the ambition that there is to deliver them is truly impressive. The scale of delivery is also broad, there are plenty of brilliant stories out there from community initiatives to large businesses.
“The UK’s largest single turbine windfarm is being delivered in the region and that was born out of a community-based initiative to bring about significant change as part of the region’s net zero ambitions.
“You cannot fault the ambition both at a large-scale business level but also at a local community level.”
Anna Schwarz is a partner at accountancy firm Saffery Champness and deals with a wide range of clients and businesses.
And she believes improved transport links has led to an increase in interest in the area and an influx of new talent.
Anna said: “Thanks to the improved transport links between Bristol and London we have a lot more people moving here but we haven’t quite got the same scenario going on in other parts of the region.
“The types of businesses we tend to deal with in the region outside of Bristol in other parts of the region tend to be smaller and are operating in sectors such as hospitality. The challenges those types of business tend to face are very different than the larger corporates.”
Anna added that despite the challenges facing business many of them are being creative when it comes to finding solutions.
She added: “We are seeing a lot of innovation when it comes to dealing with adversity. Businesses that are not in a position to pass on rising costs to their client base are finding creative ways to deal with the challenges they face.
“In particular we are seeing a lot of innovation when it comes to green energy. We are seeing a high level of innovation which means that we have not seen a high level of failures within our client base.”
And the panel were all agreed the future is bright for a region which is at the centre of the renewable and green energy sector.
The South West is geographically one of the largest region’s in the UK and stretches from Cornwall to Gloucestershire taking in a series of towns and cities with different characters and outlooks. It is also one of the most diverse in terms of sectors, population centres and distribution of wealth.
But the ever-changing landscape and rich mixture of creativity, innovation and business acumen are what helps the South West continue to be one of the most prosperous and economically stable parts of the county.