Wiltshire: The gateway for business in the South West
The county of Wiltshire has long been admired as a region of vital historical importance for Great Britain, but its importance to the South West as an economic gateway is often overlooked. Business Leader brought together a group of regional leaders to discuss the benefits of working in the county, the challenges it faces, what future developments are on the horizon and its relationship with local towns and cities.
- Ian Larrard, Director of Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative at Business West
- Philip Whitehead, Leader of Wiltshire Council
- Gary Venner, CEO of Premier Jobs UK
What are the strengths of Wiltshire from a business perspective?
Larrard: “Location, location, location. Intersected by the M4 motorway and the Great Western mainline, we’re nestled conveniently at a crossroads between east and west – making us very attractive as a base for businesses. Not forgetting our amazing historical sights, incredible walking routes and exceptional tourist spots, of course.
“Despite this popularity, however, the cost and availability of commercial property is highly competitive when compared to London, Reading or Bristol, for example. The same goes for housing that is affordable, with the north of the county a magnet for young professionals and families. Factor in our excellent transport links and we are an attractive prospect for growing businesses who have a wide geographic talent pool to draw upon.”
Venner: “Swindon and Wiltshire have a strong network of innovative entrepreneurs, microbusinesses and SMEs. Having our UK headquarters of Premier Jobs UK based in North Wiltshire allows us to access any part of the UK with excellent road and rail networks – we are one hour from London Paddington and within minutes can access the M4 motorway. The beautiful countryside makes this a very pleasant area to live in to attract staff with a community feel and cleaner air from less pollution, yet close enough to the full amenities found in the cities of Bath, Bristol and London to get the best of both worlds.”
Whitehead: “Wiltshire offers inward investors world-class R&D assets. The region is home to the Porton Down facilities of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Public Health England (PHE), with facilities to build on collaboration between the private sector, government and academia. Companies benefit from state-of-the-art research facilities, ability to construct bespoke scale-up capacity and options to access to finance. A range of incubators, co-working space and ‘accelerators’ exist across Wiltshire at competitive prices compared to neighbours along the M4 corridor.
“There is also a very close link with the military, with the Government’s Defence & Security Accelerator (DASA) headquartered in Wiltshire, helping to facilitate new technology from the private sector into our armed forces. Wiltshire is home to the Ministry of Defence’s Global Cyber Operations Centre and future warfare development centre.”
What are its weaknesses?
Larrard: “A lack of a university is a sticking point. Despite being a hotspot for job creation, we are reliant on attracting graduates from other places, rather than training and retaining our own. That being said, things are improving. Wiltshire College has some degree granting powers, Royal Agricultural University is opening up their new site and Swindon was one of a handful of towns and cities to receive government backing for an Institute of Technology.”
Whitehead: “Wiltshire faces challenges in attracting and retaining highly skilled professionals and young professionals. Ages 15-44 are under-represented against the national average, with a particular drop in the 20-29 bracket. To respond to this challenge, we are enhancing our relationships with neighbouring universities, building partnerships around our future skill needs.
“Neighbouring universities provide access to 14% of the UK’s mathematics students and 11% of computing students. Specific cyber courses are available at nearby universities in Bath, Bristol, Warwick and Cardiff. There is also ongoing cyber collaboration across universities, colleges and the military as they continue to design and refine leading edge courses to meet the needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as it is becoming known.
“Wiltshire is a geographically dispersed county and like many rural authorities, is highly reliant on infrastructure and personal transport. Internal county rail connectivity is limited, although recent development of Trans-Wilts Westbury-Swindon services illustrates the scale of potential suppressed local demand.”
How would you describe its relationship with other nearby business destinations, towns and cities?
Larrard: “Due to our location the county looks both to the East and the West. We’re a key part of the Western Gateway project to promote and maximise economic growth along the M4 corridor stretching from here to South Wales. We’ve also been involved in discussions about the extension of the Oxford-Cambridge expressway down to Swindon to provide a link with our growing tech sector.”
Whitehead: “Wiltshire is well connected and centrally located for major cities across the UK. Wiltshire is served by high frequency Great Western Main Line (GWML) express services between Paddington, Bristol and South Wales, regional commuter services on the Exeter-Salisbury-Waterloo corridor, regional/local services between Bristol, Swindon and the South Coast, and limited express services between Paddington, Westbury and the West of England. Chippenham-London Paddington takes 1hr 11 minutes, while Salisbury to London-Waterloo takes 1hr 30 minutes.
“Wiltshire is a member of the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the emerging Western Gateway and works with these partners to deliver comprehensive strategies for growth, including the Local Industrial Strategy.”
What challenges has the city faced recently and how will it overcome them?
Larrard: “Two public health emergencies in the last two years have certainly tested our resilience and ability to cope. The Salisbury poisonings hit the area hard, with the visitor economy taking a knock and business confidence down. And this year, of course, we had COVID-19.
“It seems the tragedy of the Salisbury poisonings have in some way been a dress rehearsal for tackling COVID-19, with decision makers learning from the horror of two years ago to better get to grips with the crisis we are facing today.
“Slowly but surely, we’re bouncing back and I was delighted to discover recently that in August footfall in Swindon town centre was closer to pre-COVID-19 levels than many other towns and cities across the UK.”
Venner: “The latest financial report from Wiltshire Council shows that the local authority forecasts a £5.9m shortfall due to the impact of coronavirus. To date, the council has received £29m in grants from the government to lessen the financial pressures brought on by the pandemic, as well as a loss of income scheme to compensate local authorities.”
Whitehead: “Like most places, Wiltshire has faced a significant economic challenge through COVID-19. In response and through the government support programmes, we have delivered over £94m worth of support funding to over 8,000 businesses, and we are now developing a wider economic recovery programme to support businesses through the next stages.
“Our recovery programme will build on what was learned recovering from the Novichok poisonings in 2018, which saw the Wiltshire city of Salisbury subjected to international attention. There was a significant impact on the high street and the visitor economy, now also impacted by COVID-19.”
What future developments are planned and how will they impact the area?
Larrard: “There’s plenty in the pipeline to get excited about. Porton Down Science Park has secured £2m from central government to create a research and innovation centre, which will be a boost for jobs locally.
“Existing businesses such as Zurich are expanding, and a £400m investment in a huge new warehouse creating up to 2,000 jobs is on the way.
“We also continue to build new homes at a rate that is unthinkable in other parts of the country – the new eastern villages development near Swindon the largest residential and community development in the UK at the moment.”
Whitehead: “£2.5m has been invested in the Corsham Mansion House, with an ultra-fast digital infrastructure to allow firms to start-up and scale-up. Large sites to accommodate design and build options are available. This includes high profile sites along the M4 corridor such as over one million sq ft at Junction 17, where junction improvements are in progress. Other key sites include development opportunities adjacent to the operational airfield at Boscombe Down, managed by QinetiQ, focusing on aerospace, defence and security.”
What sectors are most prevalent within Wiltshire? Why?
Larrard: “Easy access to the motorway and railway network means we’re a hub for distribution. Iceland, WHSmith and B&Q are just a handful of the household names that have distribution centres located here.
“We’re also strong on manufacturing, technology, pharmaceuticals and engineering. Avon Rubber, Dyson and Intel all call the ceremonial county of Wiltshire home. The presence of Nationwide and Zurich mean that professional and financial services accounts for roughly 15% of jobs in Swindon.
“Due to our location and highly skilled workforce we have proven remarkably attractive to the private sector over a number of decades. Public sector employment is much lower than nearby Bristol and Reading, which is testament to our pulling power.”
Whitehead: “Wiltshire offers particular specialisms in manufacturing, cyber security and life sciences, with higher numbers in professional, scientific and technical activities, manufacturing, and public administration and defence.
“As a rural county, Wiltshire also offers a specialism in agriculture, with over 2,300 working farms employing over 6,000 people. And, with world-famous tourism destinations such as Stonehenge and Longleat, Wiltshire has a large leisure and tourism sector. While these sectors have been hit hardest by COVID-19, Wiltshire’s position in the Great West Way is drawing visitors back to the area. The Great West Way offers a new touring route linking attractions and encouraging visitors to travel safely off the beaten path.”