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Economy’s ‘secret weapon’ adds Hub to its arsenal

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John Mortimer addresses the conferenceJohn Mortimer addresses the conferenceA “closely-guarded secret weapon of the government’s economic strategy” has pledged to become more visible, publishing an annual report, holding its first annual conference, and launching a new online hub to support Swindon and Wiltshire’s 28,000 businesses.

Opening the first annual conference of the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership, chairman John Mortimer revealed his personal ambition to make the organisation far more visible.

He said the business-government partnership had been working “harmoniously, but secretly” since 2011. “But in these challenging times we need to mobilise our secret weapons,” he said.

“We’ve taken off the covers: our meetings are now held in public, our minutes are available, and we are going to shout about what we are doing.”

Running through some of the successes of 2016, a packed conference hall at Alexandra House near Wroughton heard that total investment of more than £169m of funding had been accessed, leveraging a total of £349m, and leading to the creation of 12,000 new jobs.

The annual report reveals an ambition for Swindon and Wiltshire to be “world-renowned for innovation, entrepreneurialism, and a great quality of life by 2026”, and indirectly referring to Stonehenge, Mr Mortimer asserted: “We are the home of British innovation and science. How else would those stones have been placed so precisely?”

In the spirit of openness, business leaders were given the opportunity to quiz SWLEP’s board members with responsibility for the organisation’s key priorities: skills, transportation, technology, and urban regeneration.

Wiltshire College principal Amanda Burnside admitted “huge issues in terms of skills”. A high employment rate and good levels of pay meant many young people were not motivated to train past A level, she said, while young adults leaving the county to study at university were returning with qualifications that did not meet the needs of the economy.

She promised a greater focus on digital, construction, engineering, and life sciences skills.”

Vic O’Brien, partnership director of Heylo Housing, reiterated the need for building trade skills, calling the current skills gap “a real challenge”.

Nevertheless, the redevelopment of The Maltings in Salisbury was held up as an example of the way the LEP could leverage investment from the private sector. In this case, £6m funding had attracted a further £60m of private money.

Adam Schallamach stressed the importance of improving north-south transport links through Wiltshire, and told how SWLEP was working with Network Rail and franchise holders to improve rail links across the region.

And one of the hottest topics from the floor was digital connectivity. George Gill, founder of Tech Track 100 company GG Media Resources, talked about the investment being made in digital infrastructure, but agreed with some delegates that while 5G mobile connectivity would bring opportunities to businesses in urban centres, many rural businesses were not even able to access 3G mobile connectivity, or fibre optic broadband.

“We need faster broadband everywhere,” he agreed.

The conference also heard from two manufacturing success stories: Andrew Pass of Devizes-based fall protection equipment market-leader Latchways, and Alan Jones, CFO of Dymag, which makes lightweight wheels for racing and track cars and high-performance road cars.

Mr Pass talked about the benefits of recent takeover of Latchways by the American firm MAS. Access to the American market saw business growth of 24 percent in the first 12 months after the takeover, he said, and Devizes innovation was now leading the market not just in the UK and Europe, but around the world.

Mr Jones described how access to £7m of funding through the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative had helped the company relaunch with new products, investing in research and development into new carbon materials, and increasing its output from two units a day to 20, guaranteeing 262 high-value manufacturing jobs in the process.

Both agreed the biggest challenge facing their businesses was the skills gap. “The lack of people and skills will slow us down” said Mr Jones, while Mr Pass said: “We’re looking for engineers with fire behind their eyes.”

One of the highlights of the conference was the announcement of a new Growth Hub programme, which programme manager Ian Durston described as “a gateway to business support, and a place where people can get information about running a business.”

The first Growth Hub, which had been running since 2014, had been very successful, he said. In 2016 alone, there were more than 14,000 sessions and over 4,500 new users on the online portal.

The hub had supported 537 existing businesses, 49 start-ups, and 52 pre-start-ups.

A new Growth Hub website was unveiled, with a “new identity, new look, and a new URL”: www.swgrowthhub.co.uk

The website, said Mr Durston, would host 250 articles and 600 factsheets about running a business and business support – “a wealth of information.”

The site will also be an “intelligent portal”, learning about the visitor and the kind of information he or she is accessing, and making recommendations for further reading: “Like Amazon, but with business support”.

The site would also create a user-generated community of news, events, and information catering “to all sizes and stages of business across all sectors.”

The Growth Hub also offers advice to businesses over the phone or face to face.

John Mortimer called the website: “A state of the art hub; intelligent and interactive.”