What does the future hold for the South West? Leaders speak out at Bristol Airport roundtable

South West
Bristol Airport has ambitious expansion plans.
Bristol Airport has ambitious expansion plans.

Nearly 20 of the region’s top business figures came together at an event hosted by Bristol Airport and Business Leader Magazine with one key question in mind: What does the future hold for the South West?

What are the main barriers to growth businesses in the South West? And what are the positives to being based in the region and UK?

Dave Crew: “Weston College has grown substantially in past ten years; from a £9m to £60m turnover. Regarding the challenges we have faced it always comes back to recruiting and retaining good people, not only for us but also for the 2,000 partner businesses that we work with.

“There isn’t anybody around the table that hasn’t had to think about how they find talent. Interestingly, this period of uncertainty we’re going through has prompted many businesses to look inwardly at their workforces and culture, and ask the question – is it fit for the future?”

James Durie: “The pretty turbulent environment that we have had in the last few years has held back investment and made businesses and investors more cautious. But despite that there has been many positive developments and signs that people are making significant decisions. Visually you can see it in the centre of Bristol, as there is a plethora of cranes, which is an indicator of activity.”

Andrew Scott: “We look at the challenges from a regional, national and international perspective. Regionally, our challenge is around talent acquisition, as our business is heavily reliant on technology and specialist skills. Our office is in Weston-super-Mare, so that does bring challenges around accessing the skills we require.

“Another challenge is around office space, as we are constantly hitting a point where we’re outgrowing our premises. Nationally, our challenges lie around operations and transport links across the UK can be a challenge. Internationally, we’re looking to expand to other territories, so political instability can play its part.”

Nick Taplin: “As a country we’re loved all over the world, but the impact of Brexit is worldwide, and people are looking at us and saying that they consider us to be dynamic, but are surprised by how poorly we have dealt with the referendum decision to leave the European Union (EU). Hopefully, now we have a majority government, this will happen.

“Fundamentally though, people love the products we produce and buy into ‘Brand Britain’ and we do things a lot faster in the UK than many other countries do. “Regionally our business is doing very well, and we’ve also expanded internationally into Dubai and the Middle East.”

The Bristol Airport roundtable panel.
The discussion panel meets at Bristol Airport.

John Turner: “In the UK we can tell stories about our myths, legends and history and from a tourism perspective it’s something we’re capitalising on as a region.

“Visit Britain is reporting a 40% decline in people coming to the UK on holiday from Europe, but from a China and international perspective demand from tour operators wanting to find out about the region and the UK is growing. In the South West, Bath is the honeypot, but they are now pulling down into rest of the county.”

Rebecca Bozeat-Manzi: “There is a huge question mark around Brexit that is affecting hospitality and that won’t go away until Brexit goes away – whatever the decision. England is always going to be a desirable place to come to though.

“From a groups and tours perspective, our Asian market is growing, but it is very rates driven and prices are being pushed down as competition grows and everybody wants a slice of the pie.

“Bristol is also now becoming a destination. You could argue that it wasn’t before and didn’t have an identity like Manchester and Liverpool.”

It’s interesting you mention that Bristol has created an identity. Sport can play a role in that. Can you talk about your plans at Ashton Gate?

Jenny Hutchinson: “Four years ago, Ashton Gate underwent major refurb which allowed us to roll out a hugely successful concert series, in which we welcomed 120k people through the gates. The economic impact of this has been significant.

“The next phase of development is underway and hopefully by 2022/23 we will have a convention centre with a capacity of four or five thousand. This will allow us to accommodate big international events and compete with Manchester and Liverpool in this space.”

What would you say are the main barriers to growth businesses in the region face? And what do you see as the opportunities?

John Chaplin: “At Bristol Port, we have been closely involved with government since Brexit became announced and ready to advantage of the opportunities this will bring. Interestingly, Brexit has highlighted how important ports are to the UK regions.

“There are major opportunities for growth – the largest export of grain that we’ve ever seen came through Bristol to Saudi Arabia for example.

“We have a huge export market for materials like this and cars, for example. We employ 550 but across dock estate there are 10k and 20k people across the UK are dependent on the port for their living.”

Vanessa Moon: “We’re 20 years old this year and one thing that has stood out to us is how much the importance of values and culture has really come through for businesses. Organisations really need to think about their image.

“Interestingly, we’re also seeing companies coming to the region to set up offices post-Brexit from outside of the UK. The two most recent companies operate in the manufacturing and financial services sectors.

“We also need to continue to champion our links with China, and in 2020 we’re leading a delegation to Guangzhou to support this effort.”

Mandy Summers: “I’m coming from a different perspective – looking at things from the people side. There is a misrepresentation when we look at areas like Weston-super-Mare. We have got relatively low unemployment, but the problem we have is that we have low-skilled jobs and zero-hour contracts. There is a mismatch between the people that live in North Somerset and the opportunities that are available. How do we bring our customers closer to the labour market?”

Martin Boddy: “The main challenge we face is making sure we’re connecting with business needs – not just in the region but for the whole of the UK.

“We have around 8,000 students every year that graduate and 97% of them get jobs in the region, but we need to continue working with industry to ensure these students have the required skills.

“We haven’t grown in terms of student numbers in the last year but this mirrors the country as a whole and other universities.”

Chris Walford: “The challenges we’re facing as a business and typically our customers too are predominantly around finding the talent and office space needed to grow. We have excellent transport infrastructure here in the South West, but it’s far too challenging to find suitable office space for expanding companies.

“Also, in Weston-super-Mare, every morning you drive in you see a skills migration heading out of the town and this isn’t good for work/life balance and it’s not good for the environment.”

YTL's new arena plans for Bristol would have a major impact on the area if approved.
YTL’s new arena plans for Bristol would have a major impact on the area if approved.

How do we solve this issue around space?

James Durie: “There is a lack of less expensive space for businesses looking to scale-up and move to bigger premises.

“We’re in discussions with a raft of businesses that are telling us this. We need to make sure the public and private sector is working in tandem to try and solve this issue.”

Can you tell readers about the plans for the Airport and its expansion?

Dave Lees: “I have been impressed by growth aspirations from business leaders in the region, and our vision for the airport is to service the needs of the people. If you look around the world regions and sub-regions that are successful are reliant on-air connectivity.

“We’re absolutely committed to that and we see air travel as a fundamental force for good to support business, education and inbound tourism and the broader socio-economic benefits you get from flying.

“The biggest challenge we have looking forward is our level of capacity, as we are currently at 90% of planned capacity. We want to go beyond our current cap of ten million passengers, but we want to do that in a phased manner.

“The first phase is to take us to 12 million. So many people currently use the airport in the London region which exacerbates the issue and has a carbon impact. The expansion will help to offset this.”

How are you dealing with the pressure on the aviation industry to reduce emissions?

Dave Lees: “Aviation is targeted as people are asking – do we really need to travel by air?

“It seems to be an easy target and I can assure you that aviation is absolutely focused in this space and using technology to improve efficiency and decrease our carbon footprint.

“For example, we’re committed to being carbon neutral by 2025 and we’re doing this by increasing our use of solar, and from January and will be carbon offsetting all the journeys from the airport.

“easyJet is the first airline in the world to be carbon offsetting all the journeys by their aircraft at a cost to them of £25m per annum. People want to travel, but they want to have a cleaner conscience and the aviation industry is laser-focused on delivering this.”

What would be the impact of not delivering the Airport’s expansion plans?

Dave Lees: “If growth beyond the current cap is not possible, it would ultimately degrade the gateway status of the airport and this would have a negative impact on the region by degrading its competitiveness. People would have to continue to travel to and from London for many journeys as we would not be able to reverse this trend.

“There is significant jeopardy to doing that as it would hurt the growth of the region. 4k people are employed by the airport and you also need to consider the broader 20k that are employed in the supply chains.”

Simon Earles: “There is a naïve view that the airport can happily just stop at ten million passengers per year and if you spoke to our airlines, their interest is in growth. If we have a cap, some of the business we currently have will be taken elsewhere.

“We want to tell a positive story about the growth and the benefits the airport expansion will have. Our purpose is to help the region realise its full potential and there will be dire implications to capping the on-going growth of the business. The demand is there, and the population is growing.

“Airlines also want to take up capacity at Bristol airport as they see it as a growing region. We have higher-than-average wage levels and fantastic talent pool here.”

What will 12 million passengers look like as an offer?

Dave Lees: “Seven million passengers currently go to London and Birmingham, but why do people go to London to fly? A small number may go for brand reasons, but the main issue is around flight frequency and destinations. Our key aspiration is to increase flight frequency and add in some new destinations.

“We want to add destinations such as New York and Dubai. The question is – do you want to invest for the future? Airlines don’t just want to put in one flight per day, they want to put in multiple, so if that’s frustrated by our capacity limit they will look elsewhere.”

James Durie: “Flying is often put up there as a worst evil and a tall poppy that people are looking to cut down, but when you look at the carbon emissions it’s a large chunk, but all the investment from aerospace and companies like Airbus and GKN are going in to reduce this and we’re moving into hybrid and electric aircraft.

“There is a need for that narrative to be talked about. Business needs to be the solution and not the problem. Flying is just seen as something which is bad and should be reduced, but that’s not necessarily the case when you look at the future.”

Dave Lees: “The technology improvements being made by aviation are incredible and many of the airlines are becoming more efficient. Having said that though, achieving electric aircraft does have some significant challenges, because getting 70,000 tonnes at 30k feet needs a huge amount of power.

“The best brains are working on this, but it will be a phase in programme. I expect us to be fully electric by 2030 for short haul, but long haul is much further away because it’s hard to sustain an aircraft in the air for that long.”

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