The end of last year saw tolls being removed from the Severn Bridge linking England and Wales. It was a seminal moment which has not only reduced costs for commuters and businesses, but accelerated cross-border economic connections.
But it is only one of five key developments since an exploratory report in 2016 published by Metro Dynamics considered the case for a powerhouse around Bristol, Cardiff and Newport. The other developments included: the implementation of the West of England Devolution Deal, Cardiff Capital Region City Deal and the Swansea Bay City Deal; the publication of the Gloucestershire Vision 2050 report proposing the establishment of a new city region connecting Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewksbury; and the establishment of the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine.
This is all set in the context of Brexit’s reshaping of the British economy, with an increasing requirement for strong and collaborative regional action to respond to the big challenges of artificial intelligence (AI) and data, clean growth, an ageing society and the future of mobility.
So the time has never been more ripe for last week’s packed, high-profile House of Lords launch of Metro Dynamics’ follow-up report setting out the case for the creation of the UK’s next powerhouse – the Great Western Powerhouse.
The new report says the economic map of Britain is being reshaped by devolution and the emergence of the regional powerhouses – with the West of Britain along the M4 bringing together Swindon, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester, Newport, Cardiff and Swansea as the critical missing piece of the jigsaw.
Commissioned by Bristol, Newport and Cardiff city councils, A Powerhouse for the West lays out a compelling vision for a new cross-border and cross-party partnership, to develop plans together on investment, infrastructure, inclusive growth and internationalism.
The launch was hosted by former head of the civil service and chair of the UK2070 Commission Sir Bob Kerslake. His commission is an independent examination of the spatial disparities in the UK. Its first report published in May said the regional inequalities which ‘blight economic performance and life chances in the UK may become significantly worse unless drastic action is taken’. Writing for The MJ, he says the Western Powerhouse report ‘comes at a timely point’. He emphasises in the article that the outcome will be much better if the process is owned and led by the local leaders – and that ‘what happens next will be crucial’.
Speaking at the launch, Sir Bob said the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine have, for some time, been two significant partnerships to speak for and advocate on behalf of their parts of the country. He said it was ‘high time the Western part of Britain was added to that list’.
But he was unequivocal about the scale of the challenge. Unless we do something about it, the gap between London and wider South East and the rest of the UK will continue to widen further. Unbalanced growth means that we are missing out on the opportunities our regions have to offer, he said.
The report says the new powerhouse region has distinct strengths in the three key sectors of advanced manufacturing and engineering, creative and digital media and finance, business and professional services. It also identifies two high growth sectoral opportunities: clean energy and low carbon and health and life sciences.
It identifies the five key areas of collaboration that can enable the powerhouse to reach its potential as: industrial strategy; improving transport connectivity and creating a Great Western ‘transport arc of opportunity’, including unblocking M4 and M5 bottlenecks and increasing the speed and frequency of trains between the major hubs; internationalism, trade and investment; a productivity and innovation observatory linking the region’s seven research councils in Swindon with the Office for National Statistics in Cardiff; and inclusive growth.
Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees told the audience the new powerhouse’s plans would complement and help realise the ambitions of existing local industrial strategies (LISs). He said the aim was to make ‘truly inclusive growth a reality’.
The region is very clear that there’s ‘a big prize on offer’, he added – with the region’s infrastructure spending ‘already lagging 26% behind the Northern Powerhouse’. He said the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine had already developed ambitious transport plans, ‘and we need to think at this scale or risk being left behind’.
In conclusion, Jake Berry, minister for the Northern Powerhouse and local growth – one of no less than three ministers who spoke at the launch to underline their support – said he believes the new powerhouse ‘can succeed by learning some lessons from the Northern Powerhouse’.
His key piece of advice to the local politicians gathered at the launch was to ‘put your rosettes on every three years, absolutely – but put politics aside because it’s about where you live and where you feel passionately about, because that’s much more important’.