“We have got a good track record of engagement with business across Gloucestershire”
Mark Hawthorne has been leader of the Conservative controlled Gloucestershire County Council for 11 years, and at 46 has been a councillor for more than 20 years.
In a wide ranging interview, Ian Mean, Gloucestershire director for Business West and former editor of the Western Daily Press, talks exclusively to him about how he now sees business and growth in the county.
What are you doing to give business a better voice in Gloucestershire?
I think we have got a good track record of engagement with business across the county.
The council obviously engages strongly with GFirstLEP. I know that our district colleagues have very close relations with their local businesses and quite often we rely on them to understand the needs of local business.
So, I would say that we have strong business representation and good sector leaders.
We have a good track record of listening to the needs of businesses to deliver collectively together the agenda that is going to deliver growth and job opportunities for our county.
What do you think the main issues for business are here in Gloucestershire?
There are a number of issues for businesses coming out of the pandemic and we are working very closely with GFirstLEP to identify what those needs are.
Clearly, the government has been providing a huge amount of financial support for businesses over the last 12 months and much of that support has meant that they have been able to survive in what has been difficult and unprecedented times.
I think, looking to the future, we will have a higher role in delivering infrastructure for our county—that connects with our county and the infrastructure that connects us.
Do you feel that business still needs more government support-especially in the hospitality sector as furlough is now being scaled back?
One of the things that we have been acutely aware of during the pandemic is that lots of industry in Gloucestershire has been impacted- no more so than tourism which is something that is very important to many parts of the county.
We have worked with Visit-Gloucestershire to see how we can do things better when we come out of the pandemic. There is that sense that the opportunities are not always as joined-up as they should be. We want to come out of this pandemic with a stronger, more joined up tourism offer – something that is punching above its weight and not below its weight. That is where we think we are at the moment.
There is a government review due shortly on the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), and there is a feeling that local authorities will, as a result, have more direct involvement with finance from government. How do you see it?
I have always been very honest about this – I think we have a fantastic LEP(GFirstLEP) in Gloucestershire which has been really good at bringing the voice of business to the table. It has been very supportive of the key projects which we have been trying to deliver as a county whether it is the A417 or the Fusion project down at Berkeley.
But I have always said that the funding – the money from government needs to come via local authorities. There is a democratic accountability issue that sits around taxpayers’ money. I think that the changes the government are making are in that direction – I have been lobbying for that for the last ten years. For me that is the right balance but let’s not take anything away from GFirstLEP. It has done a fantastic job and will continue to do a fantastic job. There was a moment when sitting on a LEP board meant going through a lot of paperwork and a lot of bids – it didn’t feel that the LEP was given the breathing space to do what it is really good at , and that is challenging and promoting a vision for a positive future for Gloucestershire.
What about those big infrastructure projects for Gloucestershire like the Fusion bid?
I think we have got a billion pounds of infrastructure in our pipeline at the moment – the biggest ever pipeline that Gloucestershire has ever had.
The A417, Junction 9, Junction 10 – there is a huge amount of qualitive infrastructure that we have got lined up with government at the moment. It is really good to see the A417 finally coming to fruition – how many years have we been saying this? Highways England have just published the documents – the development control order process. This is the planning permission – that is the bit that will now go out to consultation to deliver the planning permission to ensure that it starts on site by 2023 and be open by 2026.
This is it – this is the moment and it is very exciting to get this half a billion pounds project under way. It is a massive project that is going to be transformational for our county.
We are now definitely punching above our weight.
And Fusion is such an exciting project working with South Gloucestershire and looking at the two old nuclear sites at Berkeley and Oldbury to be the future of nuclear fusion technology – not only for the UK but potentially for Europe and the world.
Business are asking about Levelling Up-what is it? Is it just a political situation?
Absolutely not. Levelling Up is a scheme that’s not just about the North. In Gloucestershire, two of our six districts (Gloucester and the Forest of Dean) are in the level one area for it.
It is about helping those parts of the county that need extra support to get up to where they should be.
We are now getting that fast tracking of money that will make a huge difference. The Gloucester project is massively exciting—the Debenhams project is huge and very exciting. Equally, in the Forest of Dean, what they are doing at Hartpury College is also really exciting.
Transport is a big issue here -especially in places like the Forest of Dean. Do you have a linked-up vision working with Bristol for instance?
The Western Gateway is the project that has taken a number of years to get off the ground. It isn’t just about Bristol – it is about South Wales as well so that linkage from the Forest of Dean to the Cardiff City Region and Monmouthshire is clearly part of that overall package.
Our economy leads down to that corridor into Bristol. It is about working more smartly with that region to get the right level of investment – it isn’t just about roads. It is about rail as well. We would have never got the support we have got for the fusion project if we were not in the Western Gateway because that has brought so many partners together.
Surely, there has now got to be reform of Business Rates. A lot of business sees them as an iniquitous tax.
One thing I always say to people about Business Rates is that nobody likes to pay tax and the tax that is collected by Business Rates funds local government. Let’s be absolutely clear. It is the funding that we receive back from central government through our grants system. You can’t just get rid of it without replacing it with something or else there would be no money for schools, social services and roads.
But also there is a real desire in local government to reform Business Rates because we know, for some sectors, Business Rates no longer work. The High Street is a good example of a system where Business Rates reflect a reality that has not existed since the 80s and 90s.
Online retail is a real issue for the viability for some of our High Streets. There is a need for reform-it does need changing. It has been in place for a long time but equally the funding will need to be replaced with something else otherwise local government would not have any money.
A lot of business would say that government needs to give more help to enable them to get to Net Zero. Can the government help business, particularly in their pathway to Net Zero?
I think so. Part of this is going to be government led—how do you incentivise green investment? how do you support business that wants to invest in green investment? The county council has done a lot of this itself and it can be quite expensive. It is about how business is supported. The county council and local authorities will generally play their part so we are doing a lot on electric charging points. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm around this agenda—it is how we make practical steps to change what we do in business and local government and how we make the right investment towards their Net Zero target. There is a lot of low hanging fruit that we can all play our part in to help make those small changes and it is really good that people like Dale Vince are sharing their experience of how businesses can make that happen. But there is some big ticket stuff – let’s not shy away from it to deliver to that agenda.
That’s where government incentives need to be placed to make that happen.
I think the government has some high-level plans around its Net Zero targets to deliver by 2050.
Why do we need so many district councils in Gloucestershire (there are six)?
I am not here to pick a fight with my district colleagues. We do work well together. Democracy is important and local voices within it are important. The ultimate challenge to business is that if we are not doing our job, then challenge us back to make it happen.
One thing we don’t want is conversations about unitaries as we had last year getting in the way of the day job. That is always the danger with these conversations. There will be a right moment for Gloucestershire – it might be soon, it might be in a very long time.
We are coming out of a pandemic – we have lot a lot of work to do. We have an economy to get back on its feet and we want investments to be delivered
I don’t want to jeopardise that by starting a row about unitaries.
What about Gloucestershire 2050 and the journey towards that – how far have we got?
I think we are making solid progress. When we set out the vision it was about raising the aspiration of our county in the same way as the GHURC (Gloucester Heritage Urban Regeneration Company) and GFirstLEP raised the aspiration of Gloucester 15 years ago and made it think about transformational change which delivered a real difference for Gloucester.
Vision 2050 is about doing the same. The fact that we have got involved in Western Gateway is answering a direct question: Are we punching above our weight?
I think the fact that we now call ourselves a City Region as a county is really important. The mindset change there is huge. Districts are now working with the county council on a global vision for the county rather than Gloucester and Cheltenham being seen as rivals – that’s a step change in the right direction.
We have a long way to go but people are thinking about how we get sensible growth and what can we do to attract and retain young people within our county.