As business events go, the Severn Growth Summit at Celtic Manor was high profile judging by the response it generated.
I was one of about 350 people to attend the conference, which looked at how government can and businesses improve the economies around the West of England, Cardiff and Newport.
Welsh Secretary and Vale of Glamorgan MP Alun Cairns used the recent decision to abolish tolls on the Severn Bridge to press the case for a Western Powerhouse to drive growth across the areas. The comms teams should be delighted with the coverage this generated. I’ll come back to the powerhouse theme shortly.
There is more than a touch of symbolism to the tolls going. For those who use the bridge every day, it’s said by JLL’s Chris Sutton to be worth an extra £1,500 a year. There are 25m journeys made across the bridge each year and thousands of people use it on their daily commute. It’s a good example of how government action can make working between the three cities easier and more successful.
Collaboration is what we do
I grew up in Wales, live in the South West and work across both regions. Measures to support closer, better working between the cities make perfect sense to me.
There are excellent examples of organisations collaborating across borders. The G4W alliance of universities in Cardiff, Bristol, Bath and Exeter has been established since 2013. It brings together world-class research facilities and works with organisations including the Ministry of Justice, Airbus, Sky News and the European Space Agency. Partnerships like this will play a key role in the areas’ future success.
The fact that the event was sold out event and had to move to a bigger space at Celtic Manor indicated the appetite for collaboration.
And #SevernGrowthSummit trended on Twitter for a while, which caused a ripple of excitement on the day.*
Despite the pre-briefed lines and the focus on the powerhouse theme, I believe the brains behind ‘what happens next’ shouldn’t stress about giving this collaborative effort a new name. I’m probably getting my hopes up, but I think it’s unnecessary given the response from businesses at the event. And we’ve sort of been here before (remember Great Western Cities anyone?).
Polls taken on the day suggest that people want barriers to growth removed and policy and infrastructure investment to be coordinated.
The government can do this without creating a concept that could take an age for partners to agree anyway.
And we can’t pretend that we’re starting from the same place as the North or the Midlands. These regions can create concepts like the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine because the groundwork for a collective identity has been done over generations beforehand. We all know what the north and the Midlands means, or at least we think we do.
Welsh people and Bristolians have similarly distinct identities. There are plenty of opportunities to take action that demonstrates the benefits of collaboration without introducing a new brand to the conversation.
Powerhouse, engine or plane, people want to come together, share ideas and make connections. The government and devolved administrations can make this easier. Investment in roads, rail and support for innovation and business growth are all cited by businesses as a must.
If those leading this conversation bring opportunities that benefit local people, making growth truly inclusive, then we may see something that everyone will become part of and support over time.
And just maybe, our area will succeed in a way that puts the collaborators at the forefront of the change they want to see.
I’m excited about that. Let’s see it happen.