The South needs to demonstrate its economic importance
There has to be a bank of evidence to demonstrate the economic status of the south, and the region needs to be able to articulate that strength and make the case that what happens here is financially beneficial to the rest of the country. That is the message from Kathy Slack OBE, chief executive of Enterprise M3 Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
“We need to marshal ourselves into one voice,” continues Slack , “and we will need to come up with some innovative thinking and exciting ideas to gain bandwidth.
“Politicians have become besotted with the Northern Powerhouse, even though they don’t necessarily know its geographical boundaries, but there is even less of a sense of identity in the south. We have nothing that fits the definition of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’s ‘knowledge corridor’ initiative. The East-West rail construction project links those two cities together with the help of government support and funding.”
According to Slack, there is greater understanding that economic strategy has to include transport, housing, the environment, and skills provision, not just commercial wealth creation: “We need more houses now to accommodate the next generation of the workforce,” she points out, “not just piecemeal development, but schemes which could include incubator centres for new start-up companies. These include buildings such as the BASE innovation centre, which is an intrinsic part of a new housing scheme at Bordon in Hampshire.
“Incubator centres are essential to develop the economy, and not just because of the easy in, easy out arrangements for fledgling businesses which have real potential. Starting and running a business from home can drive you crazy if you don’t have people around you, and the centres provide lunchtime talks and communal areas, which provide a stimulus.”
Slack sees more potential in enabling new businesses to grow and prosper than making the search for a major corporate relocation a priority. “For the region to bag a major corporate headquarters relocation now would be the result of meeting a very specific requirement which is completely mission critical to the company concerned,” she says. “I would prefer to talk about the need to promote the development of the world class clusters we already have such as gaming, lighting design and manufacturing. Once a cluster is apparent, it encourages companies to want to be based here because of the talent pool.”
“When we are looking at future investment in the region’s infrastructure, it has to be through a low carbon, environmental lens,” Slack asserts. “But we are behind in terms of what is needed to cope with demand today. The need for improved western/southern access to Heathrow isn’t to meet future airport expansion but to cope with what is required now.”
“Technology will provide some answers, but not all,” she suggests. “Will autonomous vehicles means there will be less traffic on our roads or simply the same amount but without drivers?
“I don’t see artificial intelligence having a detrimental impact on the south’s economy; because we have such a diverse and value-added range of companies, I think AI will bring opportunity to our region, although it’s difficult to generalise. What could happen is that automation will release people who could fill existing skill gaps with re-training.”
“The difficulty,” she adds, “is knowing how to plan effectively when we don’t really know with any certainty what the future is going to hold. What matters most you could argue is that we have the best possible broadband, because digital infrastructure is the enabler.”