Can the Great West emulate the success of the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine? Professor Gill Bristow of Cardiff University considers the opportunity for the region to deliver on the UK Government’s place-based Industrial Strategy
With the launch of the new Industrial Strategy Green Paper, the UK Government has signalled its intent to develop a place-based approach to build upon distinct industrial assets and innovation potential of each part of the country. The Green Paper states that for Britain to achieve maximum prosperity and for the economy to work for everyone, then “all parts of the country must be firing on all cylinders”. So, a key question becomes: what is needed for the cities and regions of South East Wales and the South West of England to exploit the potential of this new place-based approach?
The first step for any region seeking to develop a placed-based industrial and innovation strategy is to undertake a thorough assessment and diagnosis of its particular industrial strengths, its economic assets and resources, and its new and developing areas of growth and innovation potential. In this respect, South West England and South East Wales have a strong foundation on which to build, demonstrated by the Science and Innovation Audit published last November. This provided a unique opportunity to identify areas of world-leading research and innovation, with the Audit highlighting the region’s strengths in advanced engineering, digital innovation, energy generation and environmental technologies. The Audit was also significant in bringing together some of the regions’ key institutions and industrial partners in the execution of this task. Thus the GW4 Alliance of the universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter formed part of a wider Great West Taskforce which included the Universities of the West of England and Plymouth, as well as key businesses and Local Enterprise Partnerships.
Institutional collaboration of this kind will be critical to the development of an effective place-based industrial strategy and certainly will be vital for any emerging strategy to gain wider political traction. Indeed, the UK Government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has clearly indicated that it expects networks of collaborating universities such as the GW4 Alliance and the N8 Research Partnership to be key players in the new place-based approach. This makes very good sense. Universities are uniquely placed to act as key connectors in their regional economies and innovation ecosystems. They are place-bound and do not move in and out of their localities. Yet through their networks of knowledge production and exchange, they have unique capacities to bind industrial sectors into places, and to connect local firms with global networks and markets.
There is good reason to expect that our universities will play a particularly important role in this region as we progress from debating the Green Paper’s proposals to implementing them in practice. A central question here becomes who will co-ordinate, design and deliver a place-based industrial and innovation strategy for the Great Western ‘region’? A place-based strategy demands effective place leadership yet this is a territory of region which doesn’t have a co-ordinating administrative authority or any clearly aligned governance structures. The territory cuts across the Wales-England border and thus the boundaries of Welsh devolution, and includes a patchwork of metropolitan and local authorities and emerging city-region governance arrangements and plans. For the foreseeable future, this means this region will continue to be defined and shaped by the strategic relationships between its key institutions and stakeholders – the GW4 Alliance, the Great West Taskforce and the fledgling Great Western Cities collaboration between Cardiff, Newport and Bristol. As such, it is these alliances that will play a critical role in mobilising and co-ordinating the resources and policy levers of the region’s different authorities and their various devolution deals. For example, it is vital that any industrial strategy covering South East Wales and the South West of England complements the £1.2 billion City Deal for the nascent Cardiff Capital Region. The GW4 Alliance in particular, with its existing strategic partnerships, can play a critical role in making connections both horizontally amongst local authorities, and vertically to the Welsh and UK Governments.
The GW4 Alliance can also play a vitally important role in ensuring that any place-based industrial strategy for the region is suitably broad and does more than simply target key sectors or anchor firms. An effective place-based strategy must recognise that the fortunes of key sectors and firms are fundamentally shaped by the economic context within which they operate. Their ability to innovate and fully mobilise their latent potential will depend upon key factors in the local and regional economy such as levels of educational attainment and graduate retention, the management practices of firms and their propensity to export and innovate, as well as the wider physical and social infrastructures around them. Understanding the role and importance of these various people and place-based factors suggests an effective industrial strategy will need to mobilise and draw upon the GW4’s breadth of expertise in data science and analytics and the wider social sciences. This will be critical if we are to fully understand the transformative potential of key innovations, and be able to catalyse appropriately designed and targeted policy interventions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, an effective place-based industrial strategy will only be achieved if there is some overall vision and strategy agreed by all partners, and a clear set of objectives for collective action. Having an audit of strengths and opportunities is one thing. Having a clear roadmap for how to develop and maximise these is another. Our universities have enormous power to convene relevant stakeholders, orchestrate dialogue and partnership development and facilitate this activity. In the meantime, progress can be made with the development of a clear regional identity and brand. This will have important symbolic value in demonstrating the region’s coherence and strategic intent to external parties, as well as providing an identity around which the various stakeholders within the region can coalesce. Other UK regions are already seeing the advantages of mobilising in this way. We have seen the emergence of ‘the Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘the Midlands Engine’. Building on the GW4 Alliance and the Great West Taskforce, why not develop an identity under the banner of the ‘Great Western Force’? Deploying the word ‘force’ has some intuitive appeal, not least for conveying strength and a sense of forward momentum. It also usefully captures something of the region’s main industrial assets around energy, the environment and advanced engineering, and of the important alliances and taskforces which underpin its development and which will be key to its future.
All of this suggests that for the Great West region, as indeed for many other regions which have sought to develop effective place-based development strategies, it is not a question as to whether it has the ability to achieve its strategic development potential, but rather what needs to be done and by whom to ensure that it does.