We need to look at why it takes so long to build infrastructure in Bristol

As part of its regional review series, Business Leader brought together leaders from the Bristol City region to look at the opportunities and challenges the city is facing. Inclusion, transport and access to finance were amongst the topics discussed.

WHAT MAKES BRISTOL A UNIQUE PLACE TO DO BUSINESS? AND WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES IT FACES?

James Woollam: “As an independent, privately owned insurance broker operating in a market where our competitors are all large corporates, being based in a city like Bristol and championing all its positives gives us a big point of difference.”

Paul Brown: “What I love about Bristol is it vibrancy and position as a commercial global hub. What I get frustrated about is that the city doesn’t value its blue-collar workers and blue-collar heritage. It’s regularly converting industrial space that employs real people in the city into places that are white collar centric.

“The only white-collar jobs acceptable for blue-collar people are call centres and data tapping and we’re losing our industrial heritage by pushing it out to south Gloucester, which is not where this community lives.”

Tom Morris: “We’ve not been good enough in Bristol with managing density in the city. If you go to Manchester for example, they’re building much bigger towers than we are.

“Regarding Paul’s point about where we build, I don’t agree because I believe we are geographically constrained. If you are a developer looking for inward investment there isn’t the space for it, so there has to be a balance with trying to re-locate some of businesses. You may also re-locate a business that has fifty staff but attract one that employs four hundred and fifty jobs, so you create a net benefit.”

Marc Watters: “I like the diverse culture that you have in Bristol and this has provided us with a catalyst to open and grow in the South West. We hope to open four sites in Bristol in the next four years.

“Another positive about Bristol is the amount of start-up and technology businesses that are based in the city, and the world-class universities here which help create a strong eco-system.”

David Westgate: “Bristol is a fantastic place to live and work in but there are issues around transport and infrastructure links. If you look at places like Yate and Keynsham where they have train lines, this is where it’s likely that you will see the growth taking place.”

Dr Matthew Tanner: “The problem with Bristol is that it can feel like we’ve lived here for thirty years and we like how things are done and we don’t have to change. But the notion we can just stay as we are is a false hope and complacent, and we will end up getting left behind.

“It’s the same with the tourism sector in Bristol. It’s the second biggest sector in the city but we feel we can rely on a couple of attractions and a few nice restaurants, which isn’t good enough.

“One other frustrating point is our inability to work with Bath. Everybody seems to have their tribe and it’s become too political and people are constrained in their own pockets of influence.”

Alan Bailey: “What astounds me is that we live in one of the UK’s most innovative cities, with so many great businesses and people, but we struggle to get this right. The situation needs to be grabbed by the scruff of its neck.

But what I would say is that the way leaders and politicians collaborate has improved in the last few years.”

DOES THE POLITICAL STRUCTURE CURRENTLY BENEFIT THE GROWTH OF THE CITY?

Dr Matthew Tanner: “There is a lot of effort going into things and we all hope The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) will work but they have a structure that is fundamentally undeliverable. There is a political imbalance between the three authorities, which makes it hard for Tim Bowles (WECA Metro Mayor) to have any major impact.”

WHY CAN’T WE SOLVE THE TRANSPORT & INFRASTRUCTURE ISSUES IN BRISTOL?

Paul Brown: “I think we need to look at why it takes so long to build infrastructure in Bristol and the UK; part of this is how the contracts are procured. They are completing much bigger infrastructure projects in Singapore and Hong Kong five times faster than it takes us to build a roundabout.

“The solution could be to be to stop building in a bowl and look to places outside of the city, like Filton, for development.”

WHAT ARE THE OTHER CHALLENGES BRISTOL IS FACING?

James Woollam: “Our office is in the city centre and one subject that never gets talked about is the amount of student accommodation that is built in the city centre at the expense of office space. We have lost hundreds of thousands of sq ft and this is pushing prices up for businesses looking for space to grow.”

Briony Phillips: “Finding commercial office space is one of the biggest challenges for growing businesses. Many of the incubators are full and the corporates have secure office space, but the businesses in the middle do struggle to find space.

“Places like Runway East are helping to solve this problem but it has stagnated growth on a micro-scale.”

Sharon Alred: “Start-up space is good in Bristol, but it can be difficult for high-growth businesses to find adequate office space. What we’re seeing is that businesses are staying where they are and just buying smaller desks. Not because they want to but because there isn’t another option.”

Adam Booth: “I would say that one of the main challenges that Bristol still has is with its profile both nationally and internationally. Manchester benefits from having Andy Burnham, who bangs the drum for that region. Bristol needs an equivalent figure to do this.”

WHAT WORK ARE UNIVERSITIES DOING TO SUPPORT BUSINESS GROWTH IN THE REGION?

Catherine Frankpitt: “We have amazing universities that serve they city and they contribute an awful lot to the eco-system, both in creating entrepreneurs and businesses from their incubators but also by creating a highly skilled pool of talent that businesses can access.

“It’s also worth noting that alongside bringing in talented students and graduates to the region we also need students from Bristol – and deprived areas in the city – to attend university. 25% of UWE graduates, for example, are from Bristol. We need to do more but the universities are helping to improve access to skills and opportunities for people in the city.”

HOW DO WE ENSURE MORE BRISTOL BUSINESSES HAVE ACCESS TO THE FUNDING THEY NEED TO GROW?

Paul Jones: “50% of equity currently stays in the M25 corridor and when it does venture out, it’s only to the major cities.

“Bristol companies are receiving equity, but people tend to come to the city and then leave, so it doesn’t always stay here. The powers that be have recognised this issue and work is being done to ensure more funding and private equity comes into Bristol and the regions.”

Briony Phillips: “Funding is the second biggest challenge for Bristol firms, after office space. BPEC are doing some great work to alleviate this and we have the third biggest community of angel investors here, but 60% of that funding is still going back to the Golden Triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

“The reality is that London start-ups have access to six times the amount of capital that companies in other regions do. The data is stacking up against us but change is coming.”

How can Bristol businesses better prepare for diversity and inclusion?

Ros Trotman: “All businesses, big and small, should make diversity and inclusion a top priority. More diverse businesses mean more successful businesses. Whilst Bristol is leading the way with the launch of the UK’s first Women in Business Equality Charter this year following the launch of the Bristol Equality Charter last year, we now need to see more Bristol businesses pledge their commitment to these initiatives and bring about changes within their organisations.

“This is a public commitment to improving equality in the city by signing up to a set of objectives, including measuring and sharing progress on achieving greater equality. This can be done in a number of ways such as through improvements in the recruitment and progression processes, and does not need to be time-consuming or costly to do. It just needs to be supported at all levels within an organisation.”

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