From skills and transport to AI. Business West issues 10 priorities for next government to boost region

May 24, 2024

With the general election now taking place on 4 July, Business West – the region’s largest business organisation – has issued a 10-point plan for the long-term prosperity of the West of England.

Through its Quarterly Economic Survey, which acts as a barometer of business sentiment across the region, coupled with its ongoing conversations with members, Business West has a clear understanding of what businesses need from the next government.

Phil Smith, managing director of Business West – which runs Bristol Chamber of Commerce - pictured below, said: “Our region has seen a real lack of investment in skills and dealing with core issues, such as transportation and housing.

“Tackling these issues, most of which are interlinked, requires serious investment that lasts beyond just one political cycle.

“Businesses need this to plan and play their vital role in job creation. We are calling for long-term initiatives in the following 10 areas, which will help our economy be healthy and our businesses and communities thrive.”

1) Transport 

Transport connectivity in the region urgently needs to be addressed. But this is not just a ‘transport’ issue – it is fundamental to improving economic growth, social mobility, cohesion and achieving net zero targets.

It is an issue we know our local businesses, and communities, feel extremely passionate about.

Areas with well-connected transport routes tend to have higher productivity. But our region’s weakness in transport is not only a drag on current and future economic growth, it also a serious obstacle to delivering for our worse-off citizens and on our region’s economic inequalities.

A failure to build a full transport system has been felt hardest in our areas of deprivation for whom lack of transport infrastructure and provision cuts away the ability to access opportunities to learn, work or grow a business.

We need urgent, significant, investment in public transport.

2) Planning for new homes and businesses

The people who live, learn and work in our region need housing. While it is an attractive place to live due to its large cultural offering and access to green and blue spaces, residents are facing unaffordable house prices and rental fees.

We cannot understate the housing crisis’s huge impact on the ability to attract and retain talent in our region.

This is also creating wider pressures for businesses who are looking to start, grow and invest. Less land available means fewer premises and increased price pressures.

In a drive to create more homes we must not overlook the need to plan for employment land too.

We require long-term strategic planning to help overcome the significant challenges of our region – space for our future homes, for businesses to grow and the transport, energy and other infrastructure needed to support this growth in a sustainable way.

At present our planning system is slow and stifling economic development. It is too expensive and stops us planning across local authority boundaries. This hampers attempts to tackle our housing crisis and create new jobs and businesses.

3) Skills 

We need enhanced investment in education to address the skills-gap and drive social mobility in our region – not just for young learners, but lifelong learners too.

We need government programmes, and further education, to be more closely aligned to business needs, for today and the medium to long term.

This also relates to the issue of apprenticeship standards. Existing standards are overwhelmingly designed by large companies to support their requirements. We need to see more support for SMEs, which represent more than 99.7% of the South West’s business population.

For the under-16s, they need better careers education in school, so they are aware of the full spectrum of opportunities available to them. This should include emerging and growth areas like clean energy and Artificial Intelligence.

The education system as a whole must also address the huge advances in Artificial Intelligence, so we can future-proof our future workforce (see AI section below).

4) Foreign direct investment (FDI)

Our region’s prosperity depends on attracting investment from both domestic and international companies in new growth sectors. This will create the jobs, technologies and tax revenue needed to sustain our economy and public services.

The UK’s record on inward investment and growth has been weak in recent years, yet our region has the potential to be the home of our future firms and clusters. Both Swindon & Wiltshire and the West of England have performed well at attracting key investors, even at points of economic downturn.

Our region is an attractive place to relocate to, has highly skilled people, diverse firms with innovative products, good connections to international and domestic markets and outstanding universities.

It needs to be easier to allocate and protect strategic employment sites for future FDI opportunities.

5) International trade 

Trade is a vital way for the UK to earn income, and spur business growth to allow innovative firms to scale and grow through larger market opportunities. Companies that export are more profitable and more innovative than non-exporters, and they grow faster.

Our region has historically had a good track record for export and trade.

We need greater regional support to identify and access international markets in a way that supports local sectors and regional strengths, including more market-focused engagement and support brokering deals and buying relationships, beyond trade missions.

We also need better local SME support to help firms overcome barriers and inertia to start trading overseas and do so properly. This requires business intelligence, and private sector aligned support.

6) Devolution and governance 

Despite our region’s many strengths, it has struggled to make the most of benefits and opportunities brought by devolution and most recently the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Our region is geographically, demographically, and politically diverse, and this has resulted in a lack of a cohesive vision, ambition and leadership on the direction of transformation and change. This is most notable in the West of England Combined Authority area.

We need greater unity across local authorities, and a regional strategic plan. That plan must include the ambitious, and joined-up, delivery of new homes, jobs and infrastructure across local authority boundaries.

Greater devolution in areas such as housing, jobs and infrastructure, alongside appropriate resourcing, and a collaborative and constructive devolved culture, will help make this region a better place to live, learn and work.

7) Innovation 

Our region is home to 15 universities and educates more than 180,000 students. This helps drive UK innovation. Greater regional funding would further boost innovation within our region.

A revised approach is needed to attract investment into start-ups and scale-ups, given the decline in venture capital post-Covid and investor caution. Support measures should include tax incentives, R&D grants, and enhanced accelerator programmes.

We look forward to reform of the UK pension funds so that they can invest in these early-stage businesses. The government and private sector players should collaboratively develop and execute R&D strategies, ensuring they align to business needs. This collaboration is vital to create competitive, globally relevant technology and products.

8) Net zero and green growth

We support a consistent long-term plan for reducing carbon, supporting green industry and infrastructure. This will require private and public investment and be based on a consistent approach with cross party-political support.

Our region currently has among the least clean sources of energy supply in the UK, especially during peak times.

However, our region has the potential to be a leader in green energy supply through solar, wind, hydrogen, tidal, and nuclear power generation. Our grid connectivity is hindering this.

We need improved transparency about grid capacity at a national, and local, level. We need greater investment to improve delivery times for new power capacity and connections.

This is essential for meeting net zero targets. Without it, the implications for decarbonising energy, manufacturing and transport are huge.

We urgently need investment to support a modal shift towards greener forms of transport, and the ways in which we heat our buildings, as well as more support for SMEs to decarbonise. This is fundamental to achieving aspirations for a sustainable economy.

9) Diversity, equity and inclusion

We need increased support for employers to engage with inclusion in their workforce, and support for the third sector. We need to ensure the latter has the funds available to amplify the work they are already doing to break down barriers. We need support for companies to unlock the value of prospective talent that is currently excluded.

Bristol is the seventh worst of 348 districts in England and Wales for Black and ethnic minority communities to live and thrive, with 41 areas in the most deprived 10% in England, and an ethnic employment gap which is twice the national average.

Yet, 86% of employers acknowledge that they know they don’t recruit inclusively. Many of our other communities suffer from long-standing deprivation and economic exclusion.

Ultimately, economic inclusion is connected to so many other areas of importance. We can’t have a just transition, or close the skills gap, without making the full use of the talent of all our people.

10) Artificial intelligence 

The business community requires urgent and effective support to leverage AI, and other disruptive technologies to their best advantage. Transfer of AI technology expertise into UK workplaces is going to play a huge role in improving the UK’s workplace productivity.

We need to remain competitive on the world stage amidst growing and highly productive global competition, and to establish centres of excellence in emerging technology.

For education and our workforce of the future, we need the 11+ education system to have a greater focus on computer science skills. We also need the greater provision for reskilling people currently working in industries at high risk of disruption.

With nearly half of UK businesses without plans to use AI internally due to barriers in knowledge and budget, support for innovative SMEs to invest in this game-changing technology is going to be important under the next government.




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