Minister for Portsmouth makes his first moves in new role

Minister for Portsmouth Matthew Hancock MP with Tara Knight at Southsea Coffee in Osborne Road. ''Picture: Malcolm Wells (142137-0793)
Minister for Portsmouth Matthew Hancock MP with Tara Knight at Southsea Coffee in Osborne Road. ''Picture: Malcolm Wells (142137-0793)
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A WEEK after being made minister for Portsmouth, Matthew Hancock has visited businesses and leaders in the city for the first time.

The new minister for Portsmouth made his first visit to the area with fond memories of sailing in his mind — and £5m in his back pocket.

Matthew Hancock, who replaced Michael Fallon last week after the senior Tory MP was promoted to defence secretary, yesterday enjoyed a whistlestop tour of the area to get the lie of the land.

Despite ‘tough times’ last year, with almost 1,000 redundancies announced at the BAE shipyard in November, Mr Hancock says he sees the next months and years as being somewhat positive.

And he came bearing good news for the marine sector, in the form of a £5m fund for the research and development of unmanned vessels.

Speaking to The News yesterday, Mr Hancock said: ‘I’m absolutely passionate about supporting Portsmouth and its progress.

‘There have been some difficult decisions in recent months with shipbuilding.

‘Michael Fallon, who is now the defence secretary, has put an awful lot of effort to try and retain that capacity in Portsmouth.

‘Now I’ve got a broad remit to make sure Portsmouth prospers, even through these difficult decisions.

‘I’m excited to take on the job. Michael Fallon has done some great work here and there are some very strong local MPs, including Penny Mordaunt.’

During his first visit to the city, Mr Hancock announced a £5m government fund to help companies across the UK develop technology for unmanned boats and submarines.

Demand for the vessels globally is increasing, with one estimate valuing the overall market at $136 billion (£79bn) over the next 15 years.

It comes after prime minister David Cameron unveiled plans for a £4m Centre of Marine Intelligent Systems to be built on Portsdown Hill last week.
That announcement included a £1m fund for small and medium-size businesses specifically in this region, which has been made available by the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

Mr Hancock’s visit to the city started at a Portchester business which makes the exact type of vessels the government hopes will be researched, designed and developed in the area.

Autonomous Surface Vehicles Ltd in Trafalgar Wharf is a leader in the autonomous vessel market.

The firm moved to Portsmouth from Chichester in 2010 and has grown from two University of Southampton graduates working together to almost 40 employees.

‘We were a research company and set up as a business in the autonomous vessel area,’ says Dan Hook, the managing director.

‘My background is in navy architecture. My business partner, Richard Daltry, and I both studied boat design and did conventional design, but saw that robotics was growing and saw there was an opportunity to have unmanned boats.

‘This announcement is for more funding into research and development of our sector, which is great.

‘We are still working out how we can integrate with the new centre for excellence, but we really want to work together.

‘It is still early days but we are pleased that it will be in Portsmouth and we will definitely want to be involved in some way.’

Mr Hancock said he was impressed by the progress made by the company.

‘ASV in just four short years has gone from a start-up to supplying some of the most advanced autonomous vessels that there are and what they’ve done is inspiring,’ he said.

‘It shows Portsmouth is at the cutting edge.

‘The exciting part of this announcement tied with Portsmouth’s role as a maritime cluster of expertise is that by embracing new technologies this city can remain at the forefront of the global maritime industry and that’s we should have no less a goal than that.

‘The single most important thing is making sure that when things are announced they are delivered on the ground that is my primary focus and bringing positive news like £5m is important so it’s about finding new support for Portsmouth’s role and ensuring that when things are announced they are actually delivered effectively.

‘The areas that are being supported are forward-looking at high technology industries, which require highly skilled people and so maintaining that and strengthening that skills base here in Portsmouth is vital.

‘This is a period of transition. Supporting people through that transition is important, but part of that transition in making sure there are highly skilled jobs for the future.

‘I am determined to ensure we maintain and strengthen that cluster of highly skilled maritime jobs in Portsmouth.’

The £5m fund will be run by the Technology Strategy Board and will open for bids from across the country from October.

Companies wanting to develop cutting-edge technology for unmanned maritime vehicles will be able to apply for funding.

Bids could include ways to make the vessels safer, improve their performance at higher speed and improve the technology for launching and recovering them.

After visiting the ASV in Portchester, Mr Hancock made a stop at the headquarters of The News at 1000 Lakeside in North Harbour.

He met with editor Mark Waldron to discuss issues facing the Portsmouth area, before moving on to Southsea Coffee in Osborne Road, a new business venture in the heart of the city.

Later in the day, the minister for Portsmouth met with community leaders at the civic offices in Portsmouth’s city centre, before going to view the waterfront and historic areas of the city.

When Mr Hancock was in his 20s, he took part in a Tall Ships Race which ended in Portsmouth.

‘I remember Portsmouth as being very warm and welcoming,’ he said.

When asked if the role of minister for Portsmouth, a role specially created by the prime minister in the wake of BAE’s decision to shut its shipbuilding operations in the city, would continue after a General Election, Mr Hancock said: ‘I certainly hope so.

‘I hope we win the election and the good work that’s happened over the recent months and y ears can continue.

‘That is a question for the prime minister and not for me, but I would hope so. We’re looking to the future.’

Why use autonomous vessels?

‘THERE is no better place in Britain to develop this sort of technology.’

That is the view of Portsmouth’s new minister, Matthew Hancock.

The government says it believes Portsmouth could be the future hub of the research and development of technology for autonomous surface and underwater vessels.

It has already announced a £4m Centre for Maritime Intelligent Systems will be developed in the city.

Unmanned boats and submarines are used to stop people having to do ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ jobs.

Vessels produced by companies like Autonomous Surface Vehicles Ltd are typically used in the oil and gas sector, as well as military and scientific research fields.

As well as cutting down on personnel numbers, the vessels also cancel out risks to humans by doing tasks such as clearing mines.

There is no risk to health if the vessel capsizes, and the cost of running them is much lower if people are not on board

Unmanned vessels can be sent to remote areas, with those charged with controlling them based anywhere in the world.

In the scientific research sector, pictures and video can be streamed back live, with sensors able to collect all sorts of data and feed it back to their base.

Bridging the Gap gets thumbs up

AS part of his first visit to the city since being appointed minister for Portsmouth, Matthew Hancock visited Southsea Coffee Co in Osborne Road.

The cafe, which opened last year, was given £20,000 by Solent Local Enterprise Partnership’s Bridging the Gap fund to help create jobs and buy equipment.

The money is intended to help new businesses create jobs and grow.

Following the visit to the coffee shop and meeting its owner, Mr Hancock said: ‘The fund is about making sure we give businesses like this some money which can create big growth.

‘This £20,000 helped Southsea Coffee create six jobs - one can’t imagine them being created without that extra money.

‘Our experience is it does not work if we purely give taxpayers’ money to businesses and not give them the support to grow.’

Tara Knight, the coffee shop’s owner, said she would have struggled to create the business she has now without the support of the LEP.

‘I would have still set up the business because we signed the lease before we heard if we had a loan from the bank or the LEP money,’ she said.

‘But it would have been really difficult. I would not have had the equipment or the money for the staff. We have been able to grow and have a stable business.’

Stuart Hill, Solent LEP director and lead for enterprise, said: ‘Tara was one of the first entrepreneurs to receive funding from the Bridging the Gap programme the Solent LEP is running in partnership with The News.

‘The project has been a great success, with a £20,000 funding award getting Southsea Coffee Co up and running, creating seven new jobs in the centre of Portsmouth.

‘This is just one of many success stories for the fund, which is already supporting the creation of new jobs at more than 30 businesses across Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant - with more soon to be announced.

‘We are delighted that the government have recognised the success of the scheme and given us the funds to allow us to keep running the programme for the next 6 years.

‘We will be re-opening the competition for new businesses and entrepreneurs soon, so keep a look out in The News for more information in the coming months.’