Thoughts from #SevernGrowthSummit: no ‘powerhouse’ needed

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.

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Devolution: people care if they’re aware

The West of England’s devolution deal was rubber stamped last night after months of discussion by local leaders.

The agreement unlocks around £1bn in investment in housing, transport and skills. Most people would regard these as important issues that should be locally controlled.

Despite this and the welcome statements that will follow, last night’s response to the news seemed muted.

Councillors in Bristol expressed concerns that the 2,000 responses the recent consultation generated should have been much higher.

The Bristol Post reported these concerns alongside the question: does anyone care?

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Collaboration: more than a buzzword

Calls for ‘collaboration’ across the housing sector are hitting high levels. I have attended conferences recently at which panelists have insisted that collaboration is key to our future. At one event covering areas ranging from the performance of office buildings to the future of cities, speakers used the phrase six times in an hour.

Articles and blog posts stressing its importance are abundant. Google ‘collaboration and housing’ to see for yourself. And local and national government call for a collaborative approach from employees and partners. This can sometimes feel like a call for inspiration.

Meaning of collaboration

In an era of networks, for an industry that has thrived on partnership working, this makes sense. The challenges facing the sector are too big for any organisation to face alone. Those that work together stand a better chance of success.

It is difficult for anyone who works in the sector to argue against this sentiment. But defining good practice in this area – let along making it work – is more challenging. Statements like ‘collaboration is key’ are often used without any sign of how this could happen.

Collaboration between organisations frequently misses the input of the communities or people affected by what they are trying to achieve. And conflict seems built into the system, with some groups feeling their views are ignored. When this happens, positions become entrenched and delivery can grind to a halt.

If we are to benefit from a collaborative approach, there needs to be wide understanding of what good collaboration looks like. And organisations must prepare to change mindsets and structures to embrace it.

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Talking about our devolution: what people told us about the deal

With all that’s happened since June, it’s easy to forget that there’s a big decision ahead about how the West of England runs its affairs.

The devolution deal for ‘greater Bristol’ won’t set most people’s pulses racing. But ask those who live and work here what’s important to them and many will say housing, transport, education, jobs or a combination of the above. As it happens, the West of England’s deal is geared towards addressing all of these issues.

On the table is £1bn to invest over 30 years in housing, transport and skills. Post #EUref, when ‘taking back control’ swayed views about our country’s future, handing responsibility for these issues to local areas seems an obvious step.

It’s probably worth five minutes’ of everyone’s time in the scheme of things.

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Bristol Arena: now the hard work really starts

Councillors’ approval of Bristol’s flagship arena project is a welcome twist in a story that goes back two decades.

Bringing a big city arena to Bristol has been a long-standing cultural ambition. A huge collective effort has been put into getting the vision for a gleaming 12,000-capacity venue and a redeveloped cultural and residential quarter beside Temple Meads to this stage.

The former Diesel Depot site which will host the facility has lain largely fallow for years since it earned its name for engine goods storage.  And there are many good reasons for the seemingly slow progress.

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Devolution deal or no deal?

“This [deal] puts us in the Premiership in terms of major city regions in the UK. It’s going to be good for the whole population in terms of jobs, housing and transport.

“It also addresses some of the issues such as poverty, fairness and equality.”

Bristol’s elected mayor George Ferguson, 16 March 2016

A conversation about how the West of England can take control of its destiny may be starting to happen. And not before time…

After years of discussions, a devolution deal with Government promises to give the area’s local authorities more power over important issues like housing, transport, planning and skills. If ratified, it would unlock £1bn for local growth projects and provide councils with clout to make a bigger difference in these areas.

But there’s a sticking point for some that could derail the deal before it gets going. The government wants to see a ‘metro mayor’, who would chair a combined authority to oversee a joined-up response to the way these major matters are managed. Given the level of concern about this, it’s not certain that all councils will sign off on the deal.

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