Owl has a number of concerns about the leading role played in “the Great South West” project by the Pennon Group.
First, the business experience of a monopoly utility supplier doesn’t seem an obvious match to what is needed to chart a way forward for a rural economy based on small businesses with a heavy reliance on the seasonal and low paid hospitality sector. The dominant experience harnessed at the start of the Heart of the South West, (HotSW) Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) experiment, was equally unmatched; it included developers, universities, nuclear and defence.
Second, given the recent exposure of South West Water’s failure to deal with sewage releases into our rivers and bathing beaches, the Pennon Group seems a strange choice to be the authors of a “green jobs boom” report. This is being promoted as the way to level up our region and stop the brain drain of talented young people leaving the region.
Owl also notes the cryptic reference in Johnson’s letter to a “review of Local Enterprise Partnerships”. As with the emergence of HotSW, the “Great South West” has appeared with little or no democratic oversight. Is it about to supplant the LEP?
Hannah Finch www.plymouthherald.co.uk
Boris Johnson has told the South West it must continue to wait for news about the region’s £45billion ambition to become the UK’s ‘natural powerhouse’.
The Prime Minister, in an exclusive letter to our sister print title the Western Morning News, which has been spearheading the #BackTheGreatSouthWest campaign, hinted at good news on the horizon.
The PM writes that the Levelling Up White Paper, due to be published by the end of this year, will provide ‘an important step towards securing the formal recognition and funding that the Great South West Campaign seeks’.
But he has made no firm commitments and a campaign leader today declared: “The region has already been waiting too long”.
Mr Johnson’s comments come in response to a letter to Number 10 sent by Bill Martin, the newspaper’s Marketplace Publisher, and Editor Philip Bowern in September. They urged him to act on his warm words about the Great South West campaign.
At the time, business leaders said they were ‘beyond frustrated’ at the lack of action on their business case which they say will transform the region, delivering £45 billion of economic benefit and establishing the region as the UK’s leader for the green and blue economy.
In his letter, sent in September, Mr Martin explained how it has been five years since the #BackTheGreatSouthWest campaign was launched with the region’s biggest private sector employer Pennon Plc and the backing of MPs, business leaders and LEPS.
The Great South West Partnership set out how it has the potential to become the ‘UK’s Natural Powerhouse’ in its Securing the Future prospectus and presented it at 10 Downing Street in 2019.
The deal asked the Government for £2million over three years to progress its ambitions but nothing has yet come of it.
In his letter, Mr Johnson said that he is a supporter of the greater South West and recognised the work that had gone into the campaign.
He said: “The Government is a passionate supporter of a greater South West and I recognise the work that partners have put into the prospectus, maintaining the partnership and securing the support of MPs, local government and others.”
Mr Johnson added that the Levelling Up White Paper “is an important step towards securing the formal recognition and funding that the Great South West Campaign seeks, whilst providing the right framework for delivering these ambitions”.
But Mr Johnson’s response still falls short on the reassurances that the region is expecting, said Mr Martin.
“The Prime Minister appears to recognise that the Great South West is an opportunity, and his reply seems to indicate this will soon be recognised by Government. The trouble is that the region has already been waiting too long and that is preventing the region from realising its full potential,” he said.
“However we shall await the white paper and will continue to lobby on behalf of the region.”
Business leaders have expressed concern that the rural South West, including Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset that is represented by the Great South West, will be overlooked in favour of its nearest cousin – the Western Gateway – covering Bristol, Bath, Gloucester and parts of Wales, including Cardiff.
They fear that the Government will want to deal with one entity only when considering the needs of the South West.
But it is not as simple as that, said John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council.
He said: “The economic challenges faced by the Great South West are a world away from Bristol, Bath and Swindon, and demand special recognition by Government in terms of productivity, wages and life chances.
“Our communities have been the poor relations for far too long, but the potential for the Great South West to be England’s green powerhouse is huge.
“Levelling Up is the Government’s golden opportunity to unleash that potential.”
Gary Streeter, co-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Great South West, said further delay is holding the region back.
He said he had recently explained to the Minister for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, that the Western Gateway area does not wish to expand its territory to include the four counties within the Great South West.
“The Government is beginning to recognise the contribution the Great South West can make to Net Zero and the Plan for Growth but we continue to be concerned that Government is focused on our metropolitan areas and doesn’t recognise the huge levelling up challenges particularly to our coastal and rural places.
He said: “Although we can all understand the need for coherence. There is every hope that we will get the right result, but the delay is holding our region back in maximising its unique potential.”
A report published in September called Levelling Up the South West by thinktank Onward warned against a ‘one size fits all’ policy when considering the differing needs across the South West.
And in the Autumn Budget, big transport cash was reserved for areas with metro mayors, including £540m for the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) region – or £568 per head – for public transport in the Bristol and Bath region.
The South West did secure some vital funding in the Autumn Budget including investment through the British Business Bank for South West SME businesses, a major road improvement project in Plymouth and £48.4m for improved Isles of Scilly ferry transport links.
David Ralph, chief executive of the Heart of the South West LEP, said that it is time for the Great South West to get similar funding and recognition as its urban cousins.
He said: “The Western Gateway have clearly set out they have no appetite to extend the borders and that doing so would not be helpful to either area.
“We are collaborating effectively on areas of common interest on the Bristol Channel and aerospace but the Great South West needs to operate on a level playing field with similar funding and recognition. Then we can work directly with Government to accelerate our ambitions rather than continue to operate on the basis of good will and no funding or support.
“The proposition of the Great South West is genuinely as a powerhouse. Whilst other areas in the UK are looking to use power to try to transition to a low carbon economy, the Great South West has the raw materials to supply the rest of the UK with low carbon green power from its huge resource of untapped natural capital. It’s time to back the Great South West.”
Boris Johnson’s letter in full
“The Government is a passionate supporter of a greater South West and I recognise the work that partners have put into the prospectus, maintaining the partnership and securing the support of MPs, local government and others.
“The upcoming Levelling Up White Paper will set out bold new policy interventions that will improve opportunities and boost livelihoods across the country as we build back better from the Covid-19 pandemic. It will also look at how the Government can best work with local institutions. This is an important step towards securing the formal recognition and funding that the Great South West Campaign seeks, whilst providing the right framework for delivering these ambitions.
“I am pleased that the forthcoming White Paper will present an opportunity for councils and local government to be at the very heart of the Levelling Up agenda. Moreover, with the completion of the review of Local Enterprise Partnerships, we will have a greater understanding of how the Great South West can best work across local institutions.”