As 2019 dawns, how to cast an eye to the future for enterprise in the South West without mentioning the ‘B’ word?
A start might be to use some ‘A’ words. I recently spotted one journalist’s summary of Bristol as covering at least aerospace, animation, arts and artificial intelligence. Nice. I could widen the net beyond that one city and add agriculture, autonomous vehicles, aquaculture, architecture, atomic power, airports – and, as the alliteration crumbles, still not cover it. Yet, wherever one looks in the region, three words stand out – attitude, adaptation and ambition.
We all face considerable uncertainty as many economic and business indicators around the world look wobbly. Some of us might complain, yet I see nothing but an underlying positive attitude - a desire to adapt to continue to realise our ambitions. And if you believe in ‘happiness indicators’ we’re blessed in the South West with living and working in an area of the country that has a very high quality of life – it lifts us to have that positive vibe.
2019? I’ve not yet found a reliable crystal ball, but here’s one attempt to chart a future for business in this country. Yes, the UK’s Industrial Strategy. I can hear a groan from some quarters and I too can be as critical as the next person, but let’s unpack it as it stands now. Published over a year ago it was high on aspiration, on wide appeal to small and large enterprises, and on promises of investment, spreading the benefits around the country. There is a number of ‘Grand Challenges’, wanting to take the UK to be a world leader in: artificial intelligence and the data economy; the future of mobility of people, goods and services; in ‘clean growth’; and in confronting the issue of an ageing society.
What’s not to like – but is it delivering and has it still got legs? Sure, I’d have like to see an annual review of progress (like any good strategy), and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement could have gone further to reinforce the investments promised. Yet there’s been much work behind the scenes as eight Sector Deals are recently published with more on the way. Picking some of them off, then.
Life Sciences. We’re described as the ‘Great West’ with a very fast-growing industry fuelled by spin-offs from our Universities and our approach to collaboration with other sectors, such as artificial intelligence. We will be home to the Quantum Technology Innovation Centre supporting the ‘flourishing SME ecosystem’. Acquisitions and collaborations are measured in the tens if not hundreds of millions of £££s.
Automotive. Yes, the centre of gravity is really the Midlands, but many of our companies and universities are involved in the massive push to be leading the world in the design, manufacture and use of low and zero-emission vehicles. For example, £246m is promised for research into battery technology over the next four years.
Creative Industries. We have the largest percentage employed outside London and the South East, stretching into Devon and Cornwall, and one of the highest concentrations of growth outside Manchester. Another very healthy cluster of SMEs which can only be given another boost by Channel 4’s recent plan to relocate a programme commissioning hub from London to Bristol.
Artificial Intelligence. Again, our major industries and universities are involved. For example investing and collaborating with others beyond the South West in ‘Catalyst UK’ developing one of the largest Arm-based supercomputers to accelerate AI development across the UK.
Construction. One new big idea is ‘offsite construction’, spreading the construction of modules where the expertise is, rather than onsite. Another opportunity for our innovative manufacturers in the region.
Nuclear. We’re already a major hub of investment in Hinkley C and in nuclear submarines in Devonport, and there’s still decisions to be made about new plant at Oldbury. With Bridgewater & Taunton College being a major part of the new ‘National College for Nuclear’, and a major collaboration between the Somerset LEP and their colleagues in Cumbria and East Anglia – the South West is once again at the forefront.
Aerospace. We already know that we are the second largest aerospace cluster in Europe. We have world-leading expertise in wing design and construction, the new advanced wing integration centre at Filton is but one example. One Grand Challenge is the Future Flight programme which promises investment in hybrid and electric aircraft - exciting stuff for us to stay ahead of the game.
So, these first deals may not turn everyone on, but they all seem good for our region, for our SMEs as well as our largest industries. Many of us will have indirect benefits or should be seeking them out. No matter how sceptical you may be, government is setting ambitious goals for industry and wider society, and it is consulting with our industries to shape the detail. For us in business we need to maintain the momentum, play our part and hold government to their side of the deal.
To close, an over-riding theme in the sector deals seem to be ‘C’ words! Clusters, collaboration, connections, consultation. Whatever industry you are in, do be active in your trade association or business institute - stay informed as well as having a voice in shaping the deals. It might just help give us more confidence, to support that ambition…