A Powerhouse for the West: Britain’s missing powerhouse

By Danielle Jackson

At a time when the economic map of Britain is being reshaped by devolution and strong regional powerhouses, the Great Western Cities (Bristol, Cardiff and Newport) commissioned Metro Dynamics to write a report, making the case for a Powerhouse for the West.

Building on an earlier report, which examined the case for a powerhouse around the three cities, this report considers a larger geography, in light of the current economic climate and wider developments around devolution, both locally and in the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine.

The Great Western Powerhouse, a cross border area along the M4 from Swindon to Swansea, and the intersecting M5 axis through Bristol, north to Tewkesbury, is a powerhouse waiting to happen, with significant economic scale and shared sectoral and innovation strengths.

With a collaborative powerhouse vehicle in place, the Great Western Powerhouse can achieve its potential by working together on Industrial Strategy, infrastructure, internationalisation, innovation and inclusive growth.

Launched at a House of Lords reception, hosted by Lord Bob Kerslake, Chair of the 2070 Commission, the report was positively received by an enthusiastic audience of representatives from local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, UK and Welsh Government, business, universities and the community, as well as local Councillors, MPs and three cross-departmental ministers.

This report comes at a timely moment. The UK remains one of the most regionally imbalanced countries in the ‘developed’ world[1]. This is evident from the most cursory look at key economic metrics and plays out across many areas, including skills, wages, health and infrastructure. It is perhaps no surprise that the UK is also one of the most centralised countries in the world with Westminster and Whitehall, its two major political and policy institutions, often criticised for being too London focused.

The devolution of spending and power to city regions and regional groupings is seen as a solution to regional imbalances, enabling places to set their own priorities and policies, and direct investment, to address local challenges and maximise opportunities. There was a resounding call for further devolution from speakers at the launch, and commitments around further devolution have been central to arguments made by the Conservative leader contenders in recent hustings.

As an already successful economic area, the Great Western Powerhouse is perhaps less of a rebalancing story than the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine. But spatial inequalities operate across multiple dimensions, not only between London and other regions, or the traditional North/South divide, but within and across regions. This can play out between cities or metropolitan areas and rural communities, or between postcodes within cities and towns.

The Great Western Powerhouse is a diverse cross-border area with seven cities, market towns and rural areas. There is significant inequality within the Great Western Powerhouse with some highly economically productive areas alongside some areas facing considerable socio-economic challenges. This requires an inclusive approach, both to growth and the governance of the powerhouse.

Speakers emphasised the importance of collective working to take this idea forward. A collaborative vehicle is needed, which would be a cross-border, cross-party, public-private partnership, bringing together both national Governments and partners from across the powerhouse region.

There is strong appetite and political will, both locally and at the Government level, to drive this agenda forward. The report was backed by Alun Cairns, Secretary of State for Wales, Jake Berry, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (BEIS/MHCLG), and Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, with all calling for the Great Western Powerhouse to be established.

And as someone who grew up in Somerset, and studied and worked in Bristol, I would be thrilled to see this develop further.

You can read the full report here.

[1] UK2070 Commission (2019) Fairer and stronger: Rebalancing the UK economy.