Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Setting out the case for devolution in the south

Really pleased to say our ambitious plans for the devolution of powers from Government to West Sussex, East Sussex and Surrey County Councils have taken a step closer after they were heard by Communities Minister Baroness Williams in a very positive meeting.

We have been working on plans for devolution over the last year, on the back of a small piece of work undertaken looking at the Cost of Success; i.e. working and operating in a strong economic area. That thinking has helped shape our devolution proposition. Our bid was submitted with our partners last September and last Friday we had the first conversation with Baroness Williams. This was an extremely productive, helpful and useful meeting.

You might be surprised to hear that the 3SC area (East Sussex, Surrey and West Sussex) is one of the strongest economic areas in the county with a combined Gross Value Added (GVA) of £74 billion. You read that right – billion not million. That’s £20 billion more than Wales and £17 billion more than Manchester. The figures are astonishing. GVA is the contribution to the UK economy that each individual producer, industry or sector makes.

With £923 million raised in business rates each year, £800 million in stamp duty and £1.4 billion in council tax, we are talking seriously big amounts of money. With devolution we are looking to have some of that redirected to 3SC to ensure we can deliver on infrastructure and skills ambitions.

By working together as one cohesive group, including our Local Enterprise Partnership and two others adjoining the 3SC area, we think we can really put together the case for improved infrastructure, such as roads and rail which we know is really needed and is something residents and businesses regularly raise as an issue. We know there is a need to ensure people have the right skills for employers and interestingly this is similar to other devolution bids from across the country. I think this reflects the fact that each area is different with different skills needs and therefore skills demands. Through devolution we can at a very local level meet the local demands in a targeted way rather than on a national basis.

One of the issues around the cost of success is the provision of low cost housing. For many getting on the property ladder is very difficult and indeed often impossible in the 3SC area. At present there are 34,000 homes planned to be built by 2020 in the 3SC area. This is not a number plucked out of the air but based on figures in the local plans prepared by the 23 District and Borough Councils across East and West Sussex and Surrey.

However, we know there are brownfield sites and redundant ‘public realm buildings’ which could be brought forward to provide low cost housing which would help many including key workers. There are some fine examples of attractively designed high density homes across the country and it would be good to see what could be done here.

Working with our District and Borough Council colleagues to streamline work, so making it easier for our residents to access our services, is also an area we will be working on – known as Double Devo. There is no doubt that working together will drive down duplication and costs.

This is a very exciting and also a very big project. It is not about increasing bureaucracy but more collaborative working to ensure we meet the demands and needs of the 2.5 million residents living in the 3SC areas – this is the driving force for all of us.

Keep an eye out for updates in future blogs.

Best wishes,

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Major boost for West Sussex economy

Many people are now familiar with the County Council’s three key priorities, start of life, the economy and later life. They are all interlinked and they continue to be very much the focus for this Council.

We are fortunate that West Sussex does have a strong economy, but we do need to ensure that it is nurtured to stay buoyant which is why as a County Council we feel that engaging with businesses is so important.

One of our county’s strengths is a broad business sector. The health and life sciences sector is one within West Sussex which has expanded over the years, we have more than 90 businesses within that sector from very large international companies to smaller businesses developing and expanding. This particular sector is seen very much as a growth area with a demand for high skilled workers. As such, part of our work at the Council has focused on health and life sciences and we have been working with businesses to see how we can help it grow in West Sussex.

First and fundamentally there is a need for more business space so when we heard that the former Novartis site in Horsham was coming back on the property market, we decided to seriously look at purchasing the site. Of course such a decision takes some time, so since the summer a lot of work has gone into the risk and rewards of making such a purchase, particularly when finances are tight.

So I am really delighted to announce that West Sussex County Council is well on the way to purchasing the 19.6 acre site in what is a landmark deal for the county.

This is a really significant purchase for the County Council and represents considerable effort to get us to this stage, and naturally a lot more hard work going forward. But our ambitions for a health and life science style business park will provide a real boost to the local economy and indeed for West Sussex.

Novartis accepted our bid to purchase the site in late summer 2015. Since then we have been working on the business case to ensure the figures stack up and we are getting the best value from the site for you, our taxpayers. It has been good to work with Novartis throughout this time as they have been equally keen to ensure a commitment to the health and life sciences sector as part of their legacy.

Those who know or live near to the site may well have noticed that a number of buildings on the site have been demolished over the last few months. Under our agreement with Novartis, all buildings on the site will be cleared except the locally important 1930s Art Deco building, which is very much part of the heritage of the site. We know that Horsham residents are rightly very proud of this building and the avenue of cedar trees, which are protected by TPOs. Please be assured that we are very conscious of this important heritage and those assets will be preserved. But the other buildings on the site are no longer fit for purpose for the sector. What we need is a fresh start, a blank canvas to develop this site for future health and life science requirements and for start-up businesses too. As you would expect we will be working closely with Horsham District Council, as any plans will need to go through the correct planning process for consent.

This represents a multi-million pound investment for the County Council and is our biggest purchase to date. In tight financial circumstances this has not been an easy decision or one we have taken lightly but it ties in with boosting the West Sussex economy, which is one of our key priorities as a council. We have involved Members of the Council with a Cross Party Reference Working Group and our Performance and Finance Committee and Environmental Select Committee have all been kept informed and I am grateful for the cross-party support for this very exciting project.

There a real risk is that if we don’t buy the site then this important business space could be lost to a developer who may hold onto the land for housing in the future, thus losing important business space in the heart of Horsham forever.

Our aim is to allocate one third of the site for housing. This will generate a substantial contribution to the purchase price, representing very good value for our investment. As for the remaining two-thirds of the site the next step is to find a partner to develop it for health and life science technical jobs, with the Council maintaining the freehold which could represent further income to the County Council in the future.

As I mentioned before this is a sector which is growing in West Sussex. We currently have more than 65 multinational companies in our county, many of whom are looking to expand and seek a central hub to operate from. Our vision is for this site to become that hub. It will also attract new companies to West Sussex and therefore more jobs.

Our research shows that there are a number of companies interested in relocating to the site also that there is a shortage of high quality business space in the Gatwick Diamond area, so we are confident there will be strong demand.

So what are our next steps? Well, we need to sign contracts and exchange with Novartis in the first instance. We are also currently looking to appoint a professional marketing agent who will lead on seeking partners interested in working with us to develop the site and companies who would like to move to the site. Of course there is so much more to do, but this is an exciting prospect for our West Sussex economy and for future generations – not only by providing more high skilled jobs, but let’s be clear this sector also helps people with medical conditions so in one way or another it helps so many.

We are on the first phase – keep an eye out for future blogs.

Best wishes,