Improving infrastructure and investing in skills are vital to boosting the Solent’s economy, according to business leaders at the Solent LEP’s annual conference.
The event was held yesterday and saw scores of the top figures in business meet to discuss issues such as business uncertainty after Brexit, how to address skills shortages, what support can be given to SMEs and how they could bring forward a new transport investment plan.
New research from Oxford Economics was revealed that showed the Solent was behind the south east and the rest of the UK in terms of growth.
The Solent’s Gross Value Added – a measure of the value of goods and services produced in the area – was expected to grow by two per cent per annum up to 2036, slower than the south east’s 2.2 per cent and the UK’s 2.1 per cent.
Gary Jeffries, Solent LEP chairman, said: ‘Infrastructure remains a key priority for investment in the Solent if we are to have any hope of bridging the productivity gap that we have in this region with the rest of the south east.’
He added that a shortage of skills was further hampering the area and was one of the key barriers to business growth.
He said: ‘We need to continue to invest in delivering skills that employers need.
‘The Solent area is home to three world-class universities and a strong further education sector and it will remain critically important to us to work closely with them to help meet the demand for high-level skills and Stem skills that are critical to the future growth to industries across a key range of industries.’
Graham Galbraith, the vice chancellor at the University of Portsmouth, said Brexit had caused uncertainty that had led to a drop in applications from both staff and students from overseas.
He said that figures released on Wednesday showed there had been a seven to eight per cent drop nationally in Ucas applications to study in the UK.
Mr Galbraith said: ‘We need to have a proper debate on what we mean by immigration.
‘We need to have it before it causes any more damage to higher education.’
Cllr Keith Mans, from Hampshire County Council, said: ‘Uncertainty is beginning to affect people coming here to study or choosing other institutions in Europe. We need to look at that very closely.’
Other hot topics of debate focused around the Solent LEP’s transport plan – and saw the MP for Gosport Caroline Dinenage announce that funding for the Stubbington bypass had been secured.
Hampshire Chamber of Commerce Chairman Stewart Dunn welcomed the news.
He said: ‘We are lagging behind the rest of the UK and the south east in terms of productivity.
‘What we need to improve that is improvements to infrastructure, such as the road and rail network, but also our digital connection.
‘That’s where the future of the economy lies and improving those things will drive business forward.’
The Solent LEP recently announced that it plans to work up an outline business case for a Solent metro scheme, which would link Southampton to Eastleigh via a tram network, potentially connecting to Fareham and then linking with the bus transit route to Gosport and new town Welborne.
Mr Jeffries said he hoped this outline plan would be developed by the end of this year.
‘It is vital to boost business,’ he said.
The LEP also launched its priorities for 2017 at yesterday’s conference.
Mr Jeffries said: ‘I hope to develop a new vision for the Solent area and our economy in the coming year. While it is true there is uncertainty ahead and a number of long-standing challenges remain, it’s important that we recognise that is cause to be optimistic about the way forward. 2017 looks set to be a really important year for the Solent.’
He said that round table events would be held to debate how the Solent LEP would respond to the government’s green paper Industrial Strategy, which could prove fruitful for the Solent area due to its ports.
Mr Jeffries added: ‘Issues such as developing skills, upgrading infrastructure, continuing to support businesses to start and grow and increasing investments in science, research and innovation will be critical to our future prosperity.’