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.
“We need to marshall ourselves into one voice,” continues Kathy Slack OBE, chief executive Enterprise M3 Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), “and we will need to come up with some innovative thinking and exciting ideas to gain bandwidth.
“Politicians are focussed on the Northern Powerhouse, a region with a high profile even though its geographical boundaries aren’t always clear, but there is even less of a sense of identify in the south. We have a strong innovation base, we all full of ground breaking companies but we have nothing which has the definition of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc ‘knowledge corridor’ initiative, with the East-West rail construction project linking those two cities with 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, such as the Enterprise M3 funded BASE innovation centre which is an intrinsic part of a new housing scheme at Whitehill/Bordon, 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 business information and help, talks, and communal areas, which provide a stimulus.”
She sees more potential in enabling new and scale-up 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 worldclass clusters we already have such as gaming, space and satellites, and creative digital design. Once a cluster is apparent, it acts like a magnet enouraging 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. There is much talk about the infrastructure demands for a future expanded Heathrow, but improved western/southern access to Heathrow is 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 and emerging 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 – or how technology will transform places. What matters most you could argue is that we have the best possible 5G connectivity and broadband, because digital infrastructure is the enabler.”