THE pulse of business in the Central South was checked as more than 200 leaders and decision-makers from across the region gathered for the influential Business South Annual Conference.
A powerful line-up of speakers included Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Henri Murison, CEO of the Northern Powerhouse, Emma Hickman, Deputy Director for Subnational Statistics at ONS and a host of regional political leaders.
Collaborating for higher productivity was the message coming loud and clear from Mr Murison as he outlined the priorities for the recently launched Growing Together Alliance that includes Business South.
Business South has joined with five leading employers’ groups to create a new alliance, chaired by Mr Murison, to strengthen cooperation and drive good growth across different parts of the country.
The alliance will work together to leverage each region’s particular strengths.
Mr Murison spoke of the value of collaboration, how devolved local government would make economic progress easier, the need for investment and innovation to increase productivity and why improved public transport and better housing was key to a successful future.
He said: “One of the things that has made the road to devolution easier has been a consistent voice from business and a willingness from politicians to put aside local interests for the greater good.
“The devolution journey, of which I’m a huge proponent, has not yet come to this part of the world – but I am absolutely seized by the fact that there is complete willingness from your politicians to make something happen.
“Regarding transport, if I lived and worked here I would be very concerned about how it is basically as easy to get to London from where we are standing as it is to get to Portsmouth by public transport.
“Also, to what extent can you exploit the things you have already got to enable your economy to succeed? If you invest in long-term decisions, if you build housing next to train stations and you try and fund the train lines you need yourselves you will over-achieve against the potential.”
He also spoke of graduate retention challenges, access to talent, how city brands benefit outlying areas, skills gaps (or possibly businesses under-investing in skills) and how regional mayors work brilliantly.
The conference, at the Hilton Hotel, Ageas Bowl, Southampton, was hosted by BBC South’s Alastair Fee and was also addressed by Rod Bransgrove, chair of Hampshire Sport & Leisure Holdings Group, who outlined development plans at the international cricket venue, including around 200 homes, a new hotel and a new stand.
The occasion also saw the launch of the Maritime and Transport Careers Programme, a pioneering business-led scheme backed by a host of major industry names that is promoting the wealth of jobs available in the maritime and transport sectors.
Katie Bruce, Maritime and Transport Careers Programme Engagement Officer, said: “Our key objectives are addressing the skills gap and lack of diversity, educating job seekers and school leavers about the benefits of working in the industry, highlighting rewarding and long-term careers and promoting workplace inclusivity.”
Earlier in the day, James Hassett, CEO of the Solent Freeport since June, joined the conference via a video link in conversation with Red Funnel CEO Fran Collins and explained how the freeport’s bid stage had moved into a delivery phase.
He said: “There is a lot of expectation around what the freeport will deliver. It has been a slow burn to date, but we are starting to get staff and resources in and we think we will now kick on quite quickly to get us up and running.
“Regional businesses have been incredible, especially the one we have been dealing with around the tax and customs sites – they are hugely engaged, really positive and have displayed a great deal of patience.”
In a fascinating panel session, political leaders from across the region were given the opportunity to explain how local authority are dealing with the current financial difficulties affecting councils across the country.
Councillor Satvir Kaur, Leader of Southampton City Council, Cllr Steve Pitt, Leader of Portsmouth City Council, Cllr Paul Harvey Leader of Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council and Cllr Millie Earl, Deputy Leader of BCP Council shared their thoughts on what was needed to alleviate the financial pressures.
The politicians also addressed issued such as local plans, levelling up, social care and the selling off of assets.
Also launched at the conference was a new data service for the Central South compiled by the world-renowned team at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) based in Titchfield.
Paul Johnson, well known as the person who is called on by media outlets to unpick the financial implications of government policy, brought the conference to a close with a forensic look at the current financial situation with one eye on the forthcoming General Election, which is due by early 2025.
He said: “Living standards have barely grown in more than a decade, the economy is just about growing, but risks of recession remain because government support is coming out of the economy, taxes, interest rates, mortgage rates are rising and asset values are going down. The national debt – the thing both parties are focussing on – is barely set to fall.”
Paul, who is often heard on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and he writes a column for The Times, added that longer term challenges such as costs of an ageing population and net zero remained, would leave lots for whoever is Chancellor after the election to deal with.
Commenting on the day, Leigh-Sara Timberlake, Group CEO for Business South, said she was delighted more than 200 business leaders had chosen to attend.
“Our annual conference is a key date in the business diary for the region and our line-up of speakers did not disappoint and will help set the agenda for the future.
“It was brilliant to hear from Henri Murison and we are very much looking forward to playing an active role in the Growing Together Alliance. Once more this illustrates that together we are stronger,”
The conference was sponsored by Allica Bank, Kier, Morgan Sindall, University of Southampton, AtkinsRealis and Hilton Hotels.