Severn Growth Summit 2018

24th January 2018

The aim of the Severn Growth Summit was to bring together local partners and businesses from across the South West of England and the South East of Wales to explore how links between the two economies can be strengthened following the announcement of the abolition of the Severn Tolls.

The event, held at the Celtic Manor was moved from the golf club to the Caernarfon suite due to the high demand with 350+ delegates being in attendance.

Severn bridge

There have been some doubts over whether the tolls will actually go, especially given the U-turn of them being reduced to circa £3.

The Secretary of State for Wales, Rt Hon Alun Cairns MP reiterated that abolishing the tolls was his number one priority when he took the role and that this plan was indeed still going ahead.

He opened the talks and spent time on how the bridges provide a great link to the South West but with the cost of crossing being so high they have also become a symbolic barrier to business. One example used for this was how everyday business between places like Bath and Bristol would be stunted if there were a £6.70 toll placed between them.

This toll amounts to as much as £500k a year to many haulier businesses which will provide a significant boost to them.

The South West and South Wales region did well in creating 6,000 jobs in the last year but when compared to the Northern Powerhouse the number doesn’t appear so great with 15,000 jobs being created here but this does provide an indication of what the potential could be for a Severn/Western Powerhouse (a more creative name has been requested to showcase the innovation in the region).

More people commute over the Severn Bridges than between Liverpool and Manchester (this was the main driver behind the Northern Powerhouse movement), so a collaboration between regions in the South West of England and South Wales seems to make sense.

The removal of the tolls is only one step in the project. The government are in full support of a new motorway around Newport to alleviate the current congestion levels and any increased congestion caused by the toll booths going, roads aren’t the only things being worked on, there’s improved train links also planned. 

Great Western Rail have a public consultation available at www.gov.uk/great-western-rail-franchise.

The talk focused on Bath, Bristol, Newport and Cardiff but there will be consideration for the wider parts of each region.

There was some talk on the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal, which is the first city deal in Wales and will result in £1.2 billion being invested in the region over the next 20 years.  It plans to deliver 25,000 new jobs and leverage a further £4 billion of private sector investment.

A couple of the key parts of the CCR City Deal are the development of capabilities in Compound Semiconductor Applications, creating a South-East Wales cluster and the delivery of a seamlessly integrated South-East Wales Metro

The closing line of the speech was a Welsh Proverb ‘a fo ben, bid bont' which translates to ‘if you want to be a leader, be a bridge.’ Causing Rt Hon Alun Cairns MP to call for us all to use our bridge.

The second speaker Professor Dylan Jones-Evans discussed about how vital it was for the regions to combine and collaborate and the challenge facing this would be the fact that we’re two different economic areas with two different agendas separated by a bridge.  To succeed we need to put aside historic differences and work together.

Throughout both of the first 2 talks a lot was spoken about with regards to how successful each side of the bridge has been already, being leaders in the aerospace sector, 3rd in the country for computer manufacturing behind Cambridge and London. Successful creative industries such as Plimsoll Productions, Cloth Cat Animation and the great Aardman Animations. Financial services successes were discussed and the fast-growing Cyber security too (where the £1 trillion is expected to be spent by 2020).

The region is home to 150k students and we have seen some positive collaboration at a university level already, which proves collaboration is possible.

The travel network was the main area discussed (which was understandable given the catalyst for this summit was the removal of the tolls), I am awaiting an answer to my question concerning digital infrastructure and how we can better improve this so that it would negate the need to travel as much.

We require a fast and reliable motorway with improved journey times between Cardiff and Bristol.

The example used of an area to look up to was the combined working between Malmo (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark) after a bridge was built here to connect the two regions.  This is estimated to have made a nation economic gain of 8.41 billion Euros on both sides of the strait.

The third section of the event covered some case studies of various industries working on both sides of the bridge. The main points here were as discussed in other talks with a more sector orientated spin and a couple of extra items mentioned were that the M4 relief road was spoken about and planned as the M4 black route back in 1991 (27 years ago), the public inquiry report is due out in the summer of 2018.

There was a great talk by Grant Mansfield CEO and founder of Plimsoll Productions about how it is vital for the two regions to work together to break the monopoly that London still has on TV programming, citing examples of Channel 4 and how little they spend on production outside of London.

One thing we need to get over is the travel time. It is circa an hour from Cardiff to Bristol and we consider this a long journey but people in London wouldn’t consider this too long. By working closely with each other there could be a lot of expertise shared we can create a powerful hub.

A 6-person panel, which took a while to get into action with everybody looking at each other to work out who would answer the questions. Some interesting points did eventually come out of it though, there was an idea that we all have responsibilities as business to tell the world what a great place this is to do business so that the regions are seen as such. 

There was the idea that we need to promote the name that this powerhouse/hub is eventually given to gain brand recognition, such as Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine etc.

As mentioned earlier there was a heavy slant toward the physical infrastructure and what shape this takes in terms of car travel, rail travel etc. The argument of car vs. rail was brought up, on what it would take to promote a greater modal shift in transport to more sustainable means. Better frequency of trains which would provide people with more flexibility when using the train and a better on-board experience, such as consistent Wi-Fi to enable work on the commute.

To engage the wider audience and generate engagement it is important to get across the benefit to them. We also need to work on better digital connectivity (5G, better bandwidth etc) this will enable people to work remotely and allow people outside of the M4 corridor to access more exciting roles.

Ultimately this summit is the start of things to come, we need to work together to promote this cross pollination and pool resources where require to push for the things that benefit both sides (as both sides did for the electrification of the rail lines). We can’t forget what opportunities lay across the whole of South Wales though, in particular, great projects such as the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon which would generate a significant economic benefit.