Chair's Blog - July 2017
There has been quite a bit of comment recently about whether the Government will be shaking its magic money tree for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in the same way it has for Northern Ireland.
The £1 billion deal with the Democratic Unionist Party has seen parts of the UK cry foul. Ministers have sought to justify it on the grounds of Northern Ireland’s unique history and having a stable Government for Brexit negotiations, while others simply dismiss it as a bung.
Whatever your view, I don’t think we are going to see a similarly sized windfall heading our way. And I don’t think stamping our feet gets us very far. Government simply doesn’t have time for petulance while it tries to feed the Brexit behemoth.
What Government wants is a mature approach to economic development that will create jobs and growth and make us more productive as a country, in line with the ambitions of its Industrial Strategy.
It wants clearly defined objectives, with clear returns on investment.
If Government is going to invest £10 million in our Spaceport at Newquay, for example, what will that do for our economy and the UK’s position in the global commercial spaceflight market?
If Ministers are going to kick-start the LEP’s new £90 million business investment fund in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (which is on course to launch early next year), what will that create in terms of jobs and additional investment?
If they give the LEP more freedom to decide where to spend money on skills and training, how can we make sure those skills are what businesses need to be more competitive?
If they are going to fund a new stretch of road, how does that deliver housing and jobs?
Our relationship with Government is transactional. Ministers want to know that what they are buying will generate the economic benefits they (and we) want to see, whether it is homes, jobs, skills, or increased wages. Interests must align.
And with the most recent GDP figures for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly suggesting that our economy is 76% of the EU average (1% above the threshold to trigger EU funding support), it’s going to be increasingly difficult to argue for more investment based on need. Instead we need to talk about opportunity, not entitlement.
The way Government approaches this is also changing, with a much greater focus on ‘place’ than there used to be. To quote the Business Secretary Greg Clark, for too long government policy treated everywhere as being identical, when what is needed in each place is actually different. He wants investment decisions informed and inspired by local knowledge and the practical experiences of local businesses and communities. That’s why LEPs exist, to provide that vital link.
He argues that the consistent theme is the connection between innovation and place, and that economic growth does not exist in abstract. It happens in particular places, and areas that excel are those that have the greatest concentration of specialist knowledge.
You can apply that to Cornwall across different parts of our economy.
Look at mining, the perfect fusion of innovation and place. An accident of geology has given us expansive reserves of precious metals and a legacy of mining expertise that persists to this day at Camborne School of Mines and is exported around the world. New companies are now investigating how to extract tin, copper and lithium from long-derelict workings and waste water to fuel a near insatiable demand for electronics and growing demand for battery storage technologies.
On the Isles of Scilly, sustained by a fragile and much-repaired 55km undersea power cable from the mainland, a new smart energy system is being pioneered to manage supply and demand through renewables, energy storage and electric vehicles. The remoteness of the ‘place’ is driving innovation to create a self-sufficient energy system. The project, led by global industry giant Hitachi, could create a new smart grid template for roll-out to the world’s cities.
Cornwall pioneered commercial wind energy and has gone on to develop expertise in solar power, offshore marine energy and geothermal. It was recently announced that the UK’s first deep geothermal test well is to be drilled near Redruth to a depth of 4.5 kms, thanks to a £13m investment from Cornwall’s EU programme and Cornwall Council, and of course our geology.
We now also have a Marine Enterprise Zone looking at how we can take forward cutting-edge developments in our marine sector, including renewables, as part of Marine Hub Cornwall. It’s our geography that has spawned all this activity.
Massive investment in digital connectivity has given us one of the most advanced digital networks of any rural region in Europe and a real competitive advantage. Further EU investment is expanding broadband to remote communities and ultrafast (up to one gigabit per second) connections to 7,000 more premises, and some of our businesses are at the forefront of new technology development including 5G networks and deep space communications.
This existing digital infrastructure also creates many opportunities to deliver public services in new and experimental ways – something Government is very keen to explore, especially in disperse communities. It might be access to healthcare and education. Or to help people with a disability or long term health issue return to work without having to travel.
The theme running through all of this is the idea that Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly can be a testbed; a centre of excellence for other regions of the UK, and the world, to emulate.
Whether that’s testing new healthcare apps to monitor patients remotely, mining lithium to power driverless cars, or sending satellites into space using new horizontal launch technology, it’s all about Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly being an incubator for new ideas and policy; an innovator as in days gone by when Cornish ingenuity helped power the Industrial Revolution.
The challenge is to marshal emerging activity into a coherent plan without losing site of the massive contribution made by our existing bedrock industries like tourism and farming. That’s what we have done in Vision 2030, the updated economic plan for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. It includes ambitious targets around wages, employment, qualifications, exports and growth.
If you’ve not read it, then please do. There’s a summary here. It has had significant input from the business community and sets out what we need to do to be at the forefront of a new economy that draws together business, people and place.
That includes looking outwards. We can’t afford to be insular. So the LEP is partnering with other areas of the UK to develop our economy, whether that’s through space and aerospace, agriculture and food technology, or transport infrastructure.
Since 2011, we have helped secure over £400 million of public and private investment in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. With Brexit inexorable, the LEP’s priority is to shape, influence and negotiate a new settlement with Government that is based on opportunity, ambition and inspiration. To do that means speaking clearly, with authority, and with one voice.