A funding application to kick-start a region-wide digital infrastructure project is set to be submitted to the Government by the Western Gateway, the cross-border economic partnership of Local Authorities, City Regions, Local Enterprise Partnerships and Governments (in Wales and Westminster), working together to improve the area’s existing strategies and structures.
If successful, multi-million funding for a Digital Accelerator would form the first foundation blocks of the smart region of interconnected towns and cities across the South West and South Wales.
Speaking at an event organised by cloud experts Commwise Group in Gloucester, Councillor Toby Savage, vice chair of the Western Gateway, said the major funding application would be submitted to the Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) within weeks, in advance of the Spending Review in late October.
The Western Gateway covers a wide-ranging area from Salisbury, up through Bristol and Bath, to Cheltenham and Gloucester and the South Wales as far west as Swansea.
Digital infrastructure and connected, smart technology is seen as a key driver for economic growth and prosperity across the region.
The event brought together international tech leaders and experts, alongside local and national Government, with a small business representative from the Cabinet Office in attendance.
Also present – virtually and in person – were two representatives of the Essex and Hertfordshire Digital Innovation Zone (DIZ), which is rolling out a similar vision in the east of England, having made significant progress in the past four years.
And the headline announcement from the meeting was that the Western Gateway is seeking a multi-million grant from DCMS, to support innovative digital SMEs with transformational projects to streamline collaboration and innovation in sectors including advanced engineering, digital connectivity, creative industries and data solutions.
Cllr Savage, who is also Leader of South Gloucestershire Council, said: “The Western Gateway is home to a vibrant innovation ecosystem. Our flagship Digital Accelerator programme will connect world-leading sectors including advanced engineering, telecoms, data, cyber and our creative industries to create a globally competitive digital super-cluster that crowds-in investment, develops the talent and businesses of the future, and delivers on some of our most pressing challenges, such as Net Zero and Levelling Up.”
“Our flagship Digital Accelerator project will join up our world-leading sectors and provide wrap around skills, IP and business accelerator support to create a globally significant digital supercluster that will crowd in investment, grow our talent pool and lead the way on delivering government ambitions in science and technology.”
Martin Traynor, Small Business Crown Representative at the Cabinet Office, told the assembly that the Government was keen to make the procurement application process easier and less time-consuming for SMEs, in order to access the £292 billion a year – 14 per cent of GDP – which it spends on public sector goods and services.
Simon Holmyard, CEO of Commwise Group, said: “We recently released a white paper about the practical steps which businesses, organisations and administrators need to take to realise the vision of a fully interconnected region.
“Leaders need to consider what will bring employers to our area, and infrastructure must be seen as the key to future success. While we recognise that some efforts have gone into improving networking around the region, there is a lack of full-scale fibre provision which must act as the main arteries for data-based services to tap into.
“Perception among communities is important, too. To illustrate potential we recommend that quick wins and success stories are prioritised, perhaps with smaller, more nimble organisations which are capable of deploying and measuring smart programmes more rapidly than their larger counterparts.
“We believe attention attention needs to be on infrastructure, and localised data resources. Only then will this region achieve the potential which we all know is there.”
Rod Horrocks, is project manager at GFirst LEP and represents the body for the Western Gateway. He said: “We are very innovative here – fourth in the country out of 38 LEPs for innovations sticking from start-up stage.
“But there’s always a gap where we fund innovation, which is a problem in creating an ecosystem. SMEs therefore have to compete with all others in bids to navigate the bureaucracy, so it’s really hard for them to make it work. So how do we pull that together?
“We need to create an ecosystem for the Western Gateway and Gloucestershire, with infrastructure across the region so that companies can work and collaborate together to develop solutions.
“If we don’t have finance as part of this platform, things are going nowhere. We can’t always compete, we need to collaborate to make things work.
“We want to make the scale-up for SMEs part of the process of seamless transition across innovation, prototyping and development, and commercialisation.”