Robert Hillier: The South West must seize this opportunity

Robert Hiller is the Lead Writer of Look South West, a prospectus for the tech industry in the South West of England.

In the late 1990s I was a BBC trainee reporter based at Radio Cornwall. One of my early assignments was recording a piece on the county’s first internet cafe – in Newquay. I started my piece by asking “so, what is the internet?” before saying “a whole new type of surfing comes to Cornwall”. It was cutting edge! Yet, within a generation, I’m writing about immersive technology, artificial intelligence and cyber security across the whole South West – concepts that would have baffled me, and my listeners, just a few years ago. 

Even so, it’s been a challenge to develop the “South West story” with the same clarity as The Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine. Spending the past few months reading numerous reports into the tech industry (and industries) of the South West, speaking with CEOs, founders, senior figures from academia and just all-round experts, it may be the absence of “story” that has become the most powerful tale of all.

Unlike other regions that have relied heavily on government subsidies and initiatives to kickstart their tech industries, the South West has thrived through community effort, entrepreneurial spirit, and organic growth. This has fostered a unique resilience within the sector. Local businesses have learned to adapt, innovate, and grow without the safety net of continuous governmental support, resulting in a tech ecosystem that is inherently more resilient to the market, its fluctuations and downturns.

Of course, it’s not one person’s job to tell this story. The region’s success is driven by the focus and hard work of those involved. More than once, as I was teasing thoughts on the wider strategic opportunities of the regional tech sector from a CEO, they would say “I’m only seeing what we’re doing as a region for the first time now – I’ve never seen the links or made the connections before”. It’s great that this prospectus has helped so many people, working so hard on their own companies or sectors, to see the vital role they play in the whole ecosystem. Did those working on investment in Cornwall’s off-shore wind technology understand their direct role in the future of the UK’s electric car industry? Hopefully, they do now. 

One key challenge is the enormous impact of Bristol. As the dominant economic centre for the South West, there is a risk that it can draw investment and talent away from the wider region, or even allow the central government to tick their “Westcountry” box by upping the already significant investment in the city. At present, there is still a connection between even the far South West and Bristol, with people and businesses utilising its sustainability and stability. Whether Bristol’s extraordinary breadth of companies feel the need to act as a torch-bearer for the rest of the region is one to watch. 

The makeup of the new Parliament will also have an impact. If the polls and predictions are right, there will be dozens of new Labour, Liberal Democrat and even Green MPs in July. The question is: how can the sector seize this opportunity to shift government focus from Red Wall to Westcountry Wall? Will there be a new call for Mayors and larger Combined Authorities? 

While developing the Look South West Prospectus, one thing was clear – the South West sense of place, and of pride in that place, came through at every turn. That spirit of adventure will always make the South West stand out from the crowd. 

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