In our third interview of our Southern Gateway series, David Fletcher, Assistant Director of Economic Development at Hampshire County Council talks about the importance of local businesses and authorities coming together, to ensure the South can continue to strengthen.
“The South enjoys its relative prosperity, largely as a result of inherent benefits such as its good connectivity to and from London,” says David Fletcher. “But just think how much more successful the South could be if we also got the ethos and strategy right. The potential here is absolutely huge.”
Fletcher points to the recent resurgence of other regions, which the South can learn from: “The one thing about the North and the Midlands now is that whilst they are not as prosperous, they certainly do have a distinctive identity, and are very keen to tell the rest of the world how great they think their places are. Culturally, the South isn’t quite in that same space. There isn’t that same sense of identity. The image of the South is kind of that lush, comfortable part of the country where the stockbrokers live and people commute into London with great jobs.
“I think we need the collective stakeholders to have a bit more fire in their belly, have a bit more ambition, and be more competitive because other parts of the country definitely have those attributes and the South needs to go up a few gears on that front.”
Local authorities working together
The foundation of the South’s development should be a more strategic and holistic approach, he says: “Over the whole of Hampshire and Isle of Wight we have 15 local authorities. It can therefore be a challenge to establish a clear, strategic view of what needs to happen where, including the optimum locations for housing and employment development.”
Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) have a key role to play in setting out a long term economic vision for the region, but David believes even this model is not without its challenges. “There is tension between the need to be strategic, and the persistent need for LEPs to be seen to achieve against agreed spend profiles negotiated with central Government.”
Leadership can emerge from cooperation between county councils and other local authorities, and the private sector through groups such as Business South’s Regenerate South, supported by the work of the Southern Policy Centre which is looking at the best way for public bodies to create a coherent strategy for the region.
“If you look at London First, with no local authority members, that’s been one of the bodies that’s lobbied for the likes of the additional Heathrow runway, Crossrail and even for the Congestion Charge. Business South could be a little more akin to that and get behind causes and champion them. I think they are moving in that direction.”
“I think there is a bit of convergence now in the private sector and public body agendas which is good. If we can get to a consensus between the public and private about what the priorities are, you have a much stronger chance of convincing Government.”
But the right decisions can be taken now, he says. A core part of a strategic approach is intensifying the development of city centres, David insists: “We want to try and ensure those urban centres are vibrant places where there is lots of commerce, innovation and culture going on. They’ll then act as a magnet for talent, which is what drives business location decisions because they want to be where the talented people are.
“Out-of-town developments put a higher proportion of cars on the road network and take the spending power of staff out of city centres, as well as removing major office space demand.”
Increasing good quality office space in city centres is critical, explains David. “We need office space but the nature of that and how it is going to be managed, occupied and used is rapidly changing. If you look in Southampton and Portsmouth, there is a lack of supply at the moment, although plans are now emerging to address this. A critical part of the future agenda is that we make sure that development takes place, but that it takes place in those centres – not in out-of-town locations.”
“One study has found that the most successful city centres are those where the proportion of office space was around 50% of the total commercial property. In Southampton and Portsmouth, I think it’s somewhere around the 20-25% mark. The study also said that the poorer-performing city centres were those with a higher proportion than is needed of retail space.”
Creating the right regional approach
On housing, David says: “I’d certainly be encouraging local authorities to build. That would give the local government sector a long-term income stream and help with the whole housing affordability issue, which in the South is absolutely massive.”
He believes the future looks bright if the right regional approach is adopted. “Despite all these issues, the South is still a very, very attractive location for businesses, partly because of the proximity and access to London, and also because the quality of life here is a very strong part of the offer. We are attracting businesses but many are not being located in the right places.
“National assets like Southampton Port, plus the proximity and connectivity to London and Heathrow are vital for the region. We need to embrace and exploit this London ‘effect’.
“The South arguably represents the most critical regional economy of the UK, but we need to be much more effective about shouting about our success, and at the same time having a clear consensus around our key needs to ensure that we continue to make a massive contribution to the UK economy as a whole.”