ALTHOUGH Anne-Marie Mountifield isn’t convinced there should be a Southern Powerhouse per se, that’s not because the chief executive of the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership doesn’t believe there is a requirement for it.
“The concept of the northern powerhouse is based on issues that people can understand,” she explains. “But I think the south is such a pioneering, cutting edge region and we need language which reflects that. Do we need to call ourselves a powerhouse, or an engine? We are different, so the term needs to be more distinctive. If we are to communicate that we are at the vanguard of economic development and prosperity, then so I think ‘dynamo’ is a better term.”
Every region has its challenges, and in the south, housing is right up there. “A company will often finalise a job offer, having found the best candidate, only to find the person decides they can’t afford to take the job because of house prices, which makes bringing in talent from outside the area a particular challenge,” says Mountifield.
She points to the ratio of income to house prices. “There are areas, like our cities, where the ratio is 8:1. It could easily cost nearly £25,000 to put together the standard 10% deposit to put a foot on the property ladder.”
But availability as well as affordability is a consideration, she adds. “It goes further than there not being enough houses, to the type of house that people want to live in. We have a need for the whole spectrum.”
Early Infrastructure Investment is Essential
Mountifield makes the point that infrastructure is needed upfront, as an intrinsic part of planned developments, not tacked on years later. The challenge is not to lose that ‘quality of place’ through development. “The economic appeal of the region means that people gravitate to the south-east, making it particularly densely populated,” she points out. “You can’t build here in the same way that you could in other parts of the country.”
She believes government needs to address the historic under-investment in public transport generally. “It has made us very dependent on cars,” she says, “and it is now very difficult to encourage people to use environmentally friendly modes of transport if it’s not affordable or convenient, or if it doesn’t exist!
“It’s super important that they are well integrated, because more often than not we have to use more than one mode of transport. And coming back to it being affordable: why don’t we look at whether we can offer free public transport to under eighteens; that would be a real investment in the future in terms of mobility.”
Top of her wish-list for infrastructure is full 5G fibre for the entire region. “Top end digital connectivity. 5G for every business property and every house “rather than just hotspots that we all huddle around. That would transform us from an important economy to the important economy. It could be the USP for the whole region, and would attract a big influx of investment because businesses want to be where there is world leading connectivity. We would get agglomeration, which is the economic holy grail.”
“But I would love the whole country to have superfast 5G. It shouldn’t be about how we compare with other parts of the UK but about competing internationally as part of a global economy. If the UK does well, we all do well. To fully realise our potential, we need to be more outward looking instead of competing with other regions.”
The Importance of People and Skills
Another broad challenge is people and skills, in which context Mountifield identifies two diverse trends. “There are some really catalytic things happening in technology, which will mean the nature of work will change quite quickly, so different skills will be needed.
“For example, the move away from high street retail to online shopping requires less front-of-house customer service and more logistics. And as machines become more automated, people have to learn to maintain machines rather than just operate them.”
Fresh thinking needs to be applied to the training piece, she believes. “Entrepreneurialism requires different skills, with personality, resilience and creativity being more valued than traditional academic skills and qualifications. We are also seeing people retraining and reinventing themselves as their workplace changes. I met someone who used to be an air traffic controller but wanted to do something different. So at the age of forty-four they are now studying to be a civil engineer, learning how to drive construction plant as well as construction project management. And there are a lot of people like this, who wake up on January 1st and decide to have a crack at doing something completely different, rather than ticking off the days in their existing job until retirement.”
“Training provision needs to reflect those changes,” she says. “The education piece is very important and I would like to see more public investment in further and adult education to help people retrain and change careers. It would be extremely fulfilling for the people and the return on investment for our economy would be enormous, and continuous.”
Mountifield also makes the case that local economies need to invest in themselves. “The Solent LEP has invested £10million into small businesses over the past five years, and every pound we put in generates another £3 or £4 of investment by the companies themselves.”
So how would she describe the south’s economic personality. “If the region was a person, it would be ‘ideasy’, creative, a bit edgy, ambitious, optimistic, dynamic and able to make things happen. We need to be bolder and louder about expressing what we are and what we have to offer.”