Joe Harris, at 29 is Leader of Cotswold District Council and Councillor for Cirencester. He one of the youngest council leaders in the country with strong views about business.
As councils like Cotswold start to consider the effects of Michael Gove’s White Paper on levelling-up, Ian Mean talked to him about the challenges of helping business in his area.
Ian: “Would it be unkind to say that the Cotswolds has tended to be rather sleepy in terms of its business support? It’s only recently that I have felt that the Cotswolds has been standing up for business.”
Joe: ”I think that is a fair criticism to be honest. It probably comes from a time when councils didn’t really do a lot on economic development.
“I have been a councillor for fifteen years and one of my big frustrations – both of the county council and the district council – is that we have been very hands off.
“Councillor Tony Dale, my Cabinet member for the Economy and Council Transformation has got experience in big corporations so he is very tapped into what needs to be done to support business.
“We have also appointed Paul James as the economic development lead and he has hit the ground running.
“Having been the leader of Gloucester City Council he gets what we are after and is able to act as that link between the politicians and local business.
“We are engaging with business now in a way we didn’t do before.”
Ian: ”How can you square the gap between the North and South Cotswolds from the point of view of business?”
Joe: “It is a huge geographical area but I think we need to recognise that local authority boundaries may not even be observed by business.
“If you are in business in Cirencester, you might look to Swindon while if you are in business in Chipping Campden you may not have a lot in common with Tetbury and are looking over the border to Stratford.
“We are very aware to focus not just on the South Cotswolds where the economic power is but also in the North Cotswolds, and one of the things that Tony and Paul are tasked with is regularly engaging with businesses up there and find out what they think of the business environment.
“There are some great businesses up there like Campden BRI and Auto Sleepers in Willersey. It’s getting to the stage where we know what they are after and bringing them into the tent. You are right, it is a big challenge.
“As the crow flies, it is about 70 miles. It is a big area and the challenge is that they all look to different economic centres.”
Ian: “On Cop 26, what’s your message to business in the Cotswolds?
Joe:“Going green is good for business and there are massive opportunities for businesses. Installing energy generating measures like solar panels, reducing waste and sourcing supplies locally. It can save businesses money as well as being good for the environment.
“I think here in the Cotswolds we are ahead of the game on this.
“It’s great to see our largest employer in Cirencester, St James’s Place, putting the environment at the heart of their business going forward. They can make a real difference.”
Ian: “What about levelling-up? The Cotswolds is seen as one of the wealthiest areas in the country. How are you going to ensure you don’t get left behind?”
Joe: “That’s a really good point. It’s true that the Cotswold district has been put into category three which is the lowest priority for the government.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t get anything but we will have to work hard to make our case to government.”
Ian: “Have you a view on what the Western Gateway should be doing to give Gloucestershire a louder voice in Whitehall?
Joe: “It is a multi-layered approach with economic development. You need your micro initiatives but the Western Gateway is going to be very important allowing us to bring in serious rounds of funding.
“How can we use the Western Gateway to support those green sectors and support businesses we have already got in the area?
“That sense of scale is very important. We have got to bang the drum for the Cotswolds in a very crowded market place.”
Ian: “What do you say to people about the Cotswolds?”
Joe: “What I tend to say is that it is everything you hear about it. It is the beautiful sleepy villages but there are very dynamic businesses here, and there are a lot of challenges about housing particularly.
“But it is a great place to come and do business. There is a lot more than just meets the eye. My message is that we are all those things you hear about and so much more.”
Ian: ”There are some great people in the Cotswolds like Sir Henry Elwes who are retired people—I wonder if there is a situation of getting them together. Some of these people have great ideas.”
Joe: “You are absolutely right. There are people here of great influence who are very well connected.
“If we can get people talking that would be great. I think stage two in Paul’s role is a piece of work on how can we use the influence of those type of individuals to support business and enterprise.”