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New infrastructure: economic game-changers for a region

18 February 2021: Chris Walklett is partner in charge of Bishop Fleming’s West Midlands office. He is also on the Board of Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership. He says that LEPs play a crucial role in deciding local economic priorities, often delivered through infrastructure projects.

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“Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are important as a device to improve economic prosperity in the regions,” says Walklett. “They do so by bringing together county councils, district councils, universities, further education colleges, schools, and, of course, business.”

He continues: “There are 38 LEPs across the UK, each with their own strategic economic plan that identifies the projects they believe are most likely to move their regions forward and develop growth. The agenda is wide including employment, skills, economic development, housing and infrastructure. Understandably infrastructure dominates LEPs as they are central to unlocking opportunity.”

These ideas could comprise transport and communication projects, science parks, and further education facilities, as well as supporting businesses with grants. “The majority of government funding will end up in an infrastructure project by dint of the fact they're the easiest projects to conceptualise and are likely to make a big impact.”

And he points out that good infrastructure attracts inward investment – that is that it attracts companies around the UK looking for a good location in which to establish an operation. “We ask the government for funding to build the best infrastructure to attract investment in our region,” says Walklett.

“Or perhaps there are overseas companies that are looking to expand. Can we entice them to the UK, as opposed to France, Germany, Spain, or Ireland? And then, if you've attracted an overseas company set up in the UK, how do we attract them to establish themselves in Worcestershire as opposed to London or Birmingham?”

In terms of what an infrastructure investment looks like for Worcestershire, he says tangible assets such as railway stations, like Parkway, roads and other buildings are obvious investments. Perhaps less obvious is that Worcestershire is the home of a 5G testbed located at Malvern Hills Science Park.

“Digital is one of the key sectors on which the region is building its economy,” says Walklett, and so is cyber cybersecurity and telecoms.”

Of course, there can be no growth without talent. How does that fit into the mix? “There are several strands to this,” he says. “Firstly, we want the area to be attractive to live in so people will be happy to come and work here. It’s possible that people will grow up in the area and they will leave to go and build experience elsewhere, but we might attract them back to share in economic development.”

But universities and further education colleges also have a role to play in creating a pipeline of talent. “They must be the right calibre of people who can support the local business community with what they need,” he says.

Next on the agenda for the UK regions is recovery. “Our next focus is how we move the region forward,” says Walklett. “We need to get beyond the impact of the pandemic.”

He continues: “That focus has been very much around the green agenda – projects that we can get in the pipeline to attract government support. The green agenda is obviously very important to the government and to us, and it has seen a lot of engagement.”

Worcestershire LEP not only looks to the UK recovery models to inspire the next phase of economic development but also to overseas locations. “There have been missions to China and to Maryland in the US, with whom we have a memorandum of understanding. We've welcomed missions from Israel too. Overseas businesses are looking to us to share information too,” says Walklett.

“We look to see where our agenda mirrors the agenda of another region of the world where they are ahead of us and they've got something right.” He says that the LEP is always seeking to find out how best to create an environment where the knowledge economy, in particular, can thrive. 

For the region itself, a successful infrastructure project is one that meets a local need and is one in which the market economy might not otherwise invest. “When we judge these projects, you have to evaluate them through a different prism than on purely commercial terms,” he says

“They might be riskier projects for which there may not be an immediate calculable return in the short term, but we know they are the right thing to do for the local economy.”