In January, Womble Bond Dickinson's (WBD) Plymouth and Bristol offices co-hosted two events with the CBI: 'In Discussion with Tony Danker, Director – General, CBI'. With a fresh new year ahead, these events formed part of the CBI Director-General's first regional visit of the year. Attendees heard the latest from Tony’s interactions with the Government both in the UK and abroad as well as priorities for 2022. The events were moderated by Adrian Bratt, South West Regional Chair, CBI.

The first of the events was a lunch at Plymouth University and co-hosted by WBD Plymouth office head Craig Moore and real estate partner Nikki Jonas who were joined by guests from local organisations to discuss the current political, economic, and business landscape for the UK and the South West. Later the same day a dinner event took place at the WBD Bristol office, co-hosted by office head Fiona O'Kane and corporate partner Tom Fitzpatrick, with a focus on the Bristol region and discussions on decarbonisation, science and innovation, and the international competitiveness of the SW.

With a focus on competitive regions, a prevalent theme that arose is the need for economic growth to level up, which was likely to involve four essential ingredients:

  • high-value sectors
  • high-value firms
  • high-value skills
  • higher business investment.

The past decade has seen low investment, low productivity, anaemic growth, and we cannot afford a repeat. There are big opportunities within reach through decarbonisation, innovation, competitive regions, global trade, a changing workforce and a healthy nation. For example, the SW has significant strengths in clusters, from which to build a more competitive economy.

Tony Danker expressed particular interest in the battle between "Headwinds and Tailwinds", levelling up and a focus on clusters which are key to private sector success and the competitive strength of regions.

Labour and skills shortage

A common barrier is a shortage of labour and skills: thought needs to be put into how to attract skilled workers to the region and how we can best train our people in the skills we need to support our high growth industries.

For Plymouth the discussion progressed onto how the city presents tremendous opportunities, being such a unique cluster of Marine, Defence, Manufacturing and Green Energy industries, but there is the need for the skills base and infrastructure to support its growth. The future of the city looks at its most positive when all businesses speak together, with one clear voice and vision to build on opportunities such as the Freeport bid (plus other examples) in order to grow. There is also the need for businesses to be backing the University, City College and other FE Colleges to build the region's local skills base. This will help to address our current labour and skills shortages. Education and business needs to work together and with the CBI, who have a powerful voice not only regionally but nationally.

In Bristol similar themes also arose on the impact of labour and resource shortages on expansion plans and there was mention of difficulties in enticing EU workers back to the UK. Collaboration will once again become a necessary between businesses and the education sector to address these shortages by finding a way to fill the skills gap and to enhance careers through education. To drive regional economic growth in Bristol and the region, more must be done to get business, education and politicians to join up, shout louder and drive collective joined up activity in the region.

Other barriers

Another topic discussed was the impact of an ageing population such as the increased costs to cities which unless addressed risk stifling the economic growth in the area. There also were discussions on Net Zero targets and transitioning to emission free, especially in the context of the importance of aerospace to the region.

The debate continued at this event as to what would prevail: headwinds - such as energy costs, wage inflation, supply chain issues especially with China, or tailwinds - pent up capital ready for investment that had been on hold pending Brexit, what kind of Brexit, then faced with the pandemic.