The South West has huge opportunities to deliver growth through the knowledge economy

Monday, 12 September 2016

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The South West has huge opportunities to deliver further growth through the development of the knowledge economy in the region. However, in order to succeed, further emphasis must be placed on ensuring the appropriate infrastructure is in place, and the workforce is suitably skilled to meet the demands of advanced industry.

At a seminar to mark the launch of a new report from property adviser Bilfinger GVA, “The Great South Western Powerhouse and the Knowledge Economy”, the audience heard how the knowledge economy has been widely recognised as a vital component in the geographical and industrial rebalancing of the UK economy. In the South West, the sector made up 10% of economic output in 2015.

The knowledge economy covers the three core industry areas of science, TMT (technology, media and telecoms), and advanced manufacturing. The sector’s importance can be recognised with the six South West Local Enterprise Partnerships together expecting to add at least 165,000 new jobs by 2020 across the region, 75% of which will be knowledge economy led.

The Bilfinger GVA report outlines how the regional powerhouse concept can support the South West to allow it to further compete on a national and international level.

James Kingdom from Bilfinger GVA who compiled the report said the South West has a massive opportunity to develop its powerhouse to compete on a level with the more advanced Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.

“The regional powerhouse concept is still very much in its infancy,” said James. “The Northern Powerhouse has been at the vanguard of this shift towards supporting greater devolution and promoting regional economic growth, while the Midlands Engine has since been launched along with a UKTI supported investment pitchbook for both areas.

“The South West has a strong historic connection to advanced manufacturing, accounting for 10.8% of the UK’s output in the sector; it has a strong concentration of employment within the TMT sectors, and the region already places a huge emphasis on science.

“With this comes a need to establish a unified regional powerhouse body for the South West in order to allow it to compete and attract similar levels of investment like its northern counterparts.”

Bilfinger GVA’s report outlines that to date the South West is still without an official designated name for its powerhouse concept, any investment pitchbook, nor any solid leadership structure or champion at the highest level of government that ensures its voice is heard.

However, with trade, investment and commerce likely to be central components of the new government’s agenda and with initial promisesd to match funding, together with devolution plans for the region, opportunities will continue to present themselves. And, says Bilfinger GVA, it is encouraging that each LEP has already identified its key priorities, growth sectors and development opportunities.

The most urgent call however from speakers at the report launch highlighted the need for relevant infrastructure to be put in place to support the growth of the knowledge economy in the South West.

Matt Cross from Invest in Bristol and Bath outlined that whilst the two cities continue to attract tech companies out of London, particularly because of the knowledge base in the region, the increasing lack of suitable space for them to locate to is a big question for both public and private sectors to answer. Tech companies have not traditionally been well served in the region for space, he said, and whilst there is much happening at centres such as Engine Shed, Paintworks and The Hive, the property industry needs to do more to provide the open and flexible space that appeals to the sector.

Tom Beasley, Head of Bristol and Bath Science Park reinforced the need for responsive landlords, who understand, as the Park does, how tech companies rely on collaboration and therefore provide the appropriate space.

While Peter Chivers, Chief Executive of the National Composites Centre, emphasised that creating a ready workforce is also key to success both for the region and for the manufacturing industry throughout the UK. More than 80% of the 2026 workforce is already in work, he said. Apprenticeships, reskilling and developing people need to take priority alongside developing technology – the two must go hand in hand to create a self-supplying cycle.

In conclusion, Regional Senior Director of Bilfinger GVA, Jo Davis, said, “It’s clear that the South West has such massive opportunities ahead through growth and collaboration. Whether under the banner of a powerhouse or not, the property industry needs to respond quickly and clearly to build the space that the knowledge economy so urgently needs to keep driving our region forward.”

The Report, The Great South Western Powerhouse and the Knowledge Economy can be viewed here.