Could this city threesome work?

23 March 2015, Blog

Rivalry on the different sides of the Bristol Channel is intense – a fact highlighted by this weekend’s 6 Nations tournament when England and Wales were competing for the tournament’s crown.

That rivalry could now be put to one side and a tour de force created. And no the two rugby teams aren’t merging, but the cities of Bristol, Newport and Cardiff are seriously considering getting into bed with each other to create a Severn Powerhouse region to attract funding from government and inward investment.

I was one of around 200 business people that attended a debate on such a proposition, organised by Insider publishing at Chepstow Race Course on the day of the eclipse. It could not have been more timely, given the announcement by George Osborne two days earlier to reduce toll charges on the Severn Bridge.

So could it really work? There was certainly a real appetite from a business community spanning the West of England and South Wales. And the speakers spoke with will real desire and commitment to make it happen.

George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol, and Phil Bale and Bob Bright, leaders of Cardiff and Newport City Councils respectively unanimously stated that bureaucracy and governance did not need to get in the way of such a joint venture.

All agreed that far more could be achieved together than competing for crumbs from central government and that it would be a fillip for inward investment. And all felt that there was much to leverage in terms of presenting the region as one: including the fact that it has the highest GVA in the UK, a very strong University base and a population of two million people.

There was also consensus that the establishment of Severn Powerhouse would be the catalyst for the sub region to think more ambitiously. It was clear, despite their own achievements, that the three cities did not want to rest on their laurels and that there are bigger opportunities ahead as a combined force.

So how likely is it to get off the ground and what will be the new identity for the sub region? These were two pertinent questions discussed by a number of expert panellists spanning transport, infrastructure, science and technology.

Getting powers devolved initially was seen as a key foundation to develop such a sub region powerhouse. Better connectivity, including ubiquitous mobile and new transport infrastructure, such as a new train link between Chepstow and Bristol; the transfer of knowledge and experiences; effective marketing of the region; anticipating the technologies of the future; and developing a strategy which fitted within the context of the national plan were all seen as critical success factors for establishing the sub-region as a true powerhouse.

As regards an identity for the region, panellists unsurprisingly felt that it should leverage the dominant strengths of the three cities, including its burgeoning green industries and science and technology sectors. Just think of a region which could boast the only UK European Green Capital, a hotbed of environmental businesses based around the natural resources of the area, the Bristol and Bath Science Park, the National Composite Centre, the planned development of a European semi-conductor hub, the Life Sciences Hub and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory – that’s some message to take to Westminster and the world.

There will of course be much more debate ahead on the creation of a Severn powerhouse brand, not least its composition in terms of whether other key cities such as Bath, Gloucester and Swansea should be included in the mix.

But, whilst England and Wales were nipped to the post by Ireland in the 6 Nations at the weekend, there is every chance for success for both countries if such a sub-region becomes an economic reality.

One panellist argued that new brand would need to hit the headlines; it certainly would if such old and fierce rivalries were put to one side.

Chris Lawrance is a Director in JBP’s Bristol office.

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