STEERING THE LOCAL ECONOMY

Cllr. Colin Darracott, Executive Member of B&NES Council & Trustee of BRLSI, on 29 March 2004

Colin Darracott is a Bathonian educated at Beechen Cliff School who was elected to the Council in May 2003. In June he became Executive Member responsible for economic development, property and major projects, and monitoring of Council performance and service plans. He entered politics after 18 years in the oil industry all over the world.

The speaker posed four questions that he proposed to answer as an introduction to the discussion:

How is the local economy performing?
What affects the local economy?
What can be done by the local Council to affect it?
Can the effects be measured?
Performance
There have been several reports prepared on this subject by various organisations, some contradictory, but in general Bath is above the national and regional averages in most fields; in particular:

Claimant unemployment has been 1.2% for the last 4 years and was 1.1% at the end of 2003, one of the lowest rates in the UK.
The gross value added for 1995-2001 grew by over 41% compared to a national average of 36%; locally, only Swindon and Bristol exceeded Bath's rate of growth
Bath has the highest rate of inflow of residents in the SW area
Tourists spend about £300M/yr. in Bath; retail spending was £212M last year in Bath and £450M in the catchment area around Bath.
2.Effects

A very large number of conditions affect the economy of Bath. Global conditions include the varying popularity of tourism and world travel; the performance of pension funds; environmental concerns and the oil price. Locally, government expenditure; consumer debt; the housing market; the availability of housing for key workers; the consequent shortage of key workers and the 50 year old traffic and transport problems are the main effects seen by residents. High land values and shortage of land affect development.

It is desirable to improve the current uncompetitive retail mix that is aimed too much at tourists and does not attract shoppers from the catchment area, and also the experience offered to visitors so that they stay longer than the present average of 1.47 nights and extend their visit away from the central area.

Action
There are three major and some minor items requiring action by the Council. The major items are:

a) Major Projects. There are dozens of projects in B&NES, many involving land or buildings owned by the Council. These will need private involvement in the development. They include: Western Riverside, Southgate, Bath Quays (Avon St car park), Pulteney Bridge to North Parade, Sawclose, The Octagon & Shires Yard, Broad St., the Cattle Market, the Corn Market & Podium, the Sorting Office and Police Station, and areas in Radstock and Keynsham.

b) Skills. We must maintain and enhance the existing good school system, Universities and training services.

c)Housing. Probably the most critical is to provide a supply of houses for key workers. It is also necessary to improve the public realm to make the city more attractive to residents and visitors.

Thinking should be more strategic and regional but the CUBA group (Councils that Used to Be Avon) cannot agree and the GOSW (Government Office for the SW) are frustrated that money available is not being requested. The Local Strategic Plan should be embraced enthusiastically.

The Council does make money, over £1M in total, available for example to the new Tourist Company, Business West and for the Christmas Lights and market.

Key transport issues have to be solved and need a radical approach.

Finally, economic intelligence is essential.

Measurement
This is probably only possible on a small scale:

the number of visitors each day, for example. It is reported that this number is falling on Saturdays, perhaps as residents in the catchment area avoid Bath for shopping.
The number of businesses started or moving into Bath.
Surveys, e.g. for how much people spend whilst in Bath.
It is difficult to claim that the Council can be credited with the improvements in the economic projects if they are successful and they will certainly be blamed if they are not.

 

It is necessary and fairly easy for the Conical to foresee and take such advantage as they can of global, national and regional upswings, but very difficult for them to combat downswings for which they will inevitably be blamed.

 

Discussion

A lengthy discussion tried to concentrate on a few major topics: council rents, the effect of parking and transport on shopping: regional strategy, and the performance of the Council.. A few queries arose first from which the following emerged:

The age profile of Bath residents is only slightly older than the national average and there has been a growth recently in the 34-44 cohort.
The unacceptably long time it takes to get a project started is due to lack of political leadership and drive
There is some merit in the argument that the total economy of Bath should not increase but the quality should be improved and this requires the transport problem to be solved. Doubling the number of shops in Southgate, construction at Western Riverside, etc. may increase air pollution which is already unacceptable in London Rd, and Claverton St.
The Council does not know how to encourage and improve 'suburban' shopping areas like Widcombe Parade, Weston, Larkhall, Chelsea Rd.
Council Rents

The Council have an income from their property of around £11M/yr. The original leaseholder is responsible for the rent for the whole duration of the lease even if they sub-let, and the Council will not accept back a lease if the occupier wishes to vacate. Rents are only revised upwards. Leases related to the turnover of the business are not accepted. Recently the Council has been allowed to reduce the rent of a property by the District Auditor although there appears to be a reluctance to do so on the part of the Property Dept.

Retailers complain that there are no 'magnets' such as cheap supermarkets (ASDA, Tesco) or retail warehouse sheds to attract shoppers to Bath from surrounding areas. A limited survey found no complaints abut rents or leases, but this was ridiculed by some of those present.

Parking & Shopping

Although parking is difficult for shoppers and commuting staff, and public transport is unreliable because of staff shortages and congestion, Bath is still busy and prosperous.

Regional Strategy

The GOSW has been in existence since 1945 and will become more noticeable as the Regional Assembly develops into regional government.

The economy of Bath consists of several large public services – health, education including the University, council services, buses – and a large tourist service sector. Much of the wealth of Bath is imported by people moving into the City or by increasing house values. The money is probably not earned in Bath.

Council Performance

There is difficulty in getting major projects started because of political in-fighting and a lack of suitable Officer skills at running such projects. The Council lacks the will or ability to ensure private companies effectively manage such projects, like the Spa. A high quality major project manager is being recruited as a consultant, not on the Council's staff, to overcome this situation.

The economy of Bath is not the same as that of Bristol but in the long run it seem inevitable that Bath will be absorbed into Bristol's plans.

Donald Lovell