Devolution, road improvements and digital connectivity were among the key topics discussed at Somerset Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast briefing with Somerset County Council on Tuesday 16 January.
Sixty business people gathered at Taunton Racecourse for the Chamber’s first event of the year, where Cllr. David Hall, Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Resources and Economic Development, provided an update on the Council’s plans and priorities for 2018.
Cllr. Hall opened his presentation by highlighting that the County Council continues to recognise the importance of working with and supporting business where they can, so he was delighted to have been given the opportunity to speak to Chamber members again this year.
He outlined the topic of devolution and the discussions that the Council has had with government regarding the challenges of electing a metro mayor to cover an area as broad and diverse as the South West, with confirmation now received that a metro mayor is no longer a requirement. He said that 17 local authorities across the South West have signed up to a joint committee, which is the first stage on the path to devolution, with the topics of rural productivity, digital connectivity and transport, housing, innovation and skills being the at the core of the devolution offering.
On the subject of road improvements, he emphasised that progress is being made on developing the second key strategic route into the South West, with a consultation on the proposed changes to the A358 about to be launched and positive discussions taking place regarding the proposed tunnel and bypass at Stonehenge.
On digital connectivity, he stated that phase two of Connecting Devon and Somerset, which is now underway, will deliver 95% superfast broadband across the county. The Council is currently trying to set up a discussion with Matt Hancock, the new Culture Secretary, to get clarity on what is planned in terms of delivering 100% superfast broadband, as well as what is going to happen about the mobile network, which is still proving challenging for many in Somerset.
As Carillion Telent is a prime contractor for Gigaclear, which is responsible for the second phase of the Connecting Devon and Somerset programme, Cllr. Hall confirmed that they are monitoring the situation carefully. However, he did say that Gigaclear had confirmed they have no financial exposure and they have contingency plans for alternative delivery if there is a major issue.
Other topics referenced by Cllr. David Hall during his presentation included the proposed merger of West Somerset and Taunton Deane district councils, the development of the Somerset Energy Innovation Centre, the iAero project, and council budget constraints. Questions raised by the attendees included issues around business rates, road and rail improvements, unitary authority and inward investment support.
Dale Edwards, Chief Executive of Somerset Chamber of Commerce, then spoke to delegates about the continuing growth of the Chamber, including through the new Somerset Education Business Partnership – a collaborative programme with Somerset Chamber and Somerset County Council, which is funded by the Hinkley Point C Community Impact Mitigation Fund. He also referenced the upcoming Heathrow Business Summit in March, which will give local businesses a chance to understand the opportunities that are available and meet some of the Tier 1 suppliers to the project.
Bradfords Group, a Patron of Somerset Chamber of Commerce, was the event sponsor for the breakfast briefing. Following the event, Director Paul Carlisle commented, “Today’s breakfast event with Somerset County Council was enjoyable and informative, with the presentation by David Hall being a valuable source of information. Combined with the opportunity to communicate with other like-minded Somerset businesses, this was undoubtedly a worthwhile event to attend and support. Bradfords has been trading in Somerset since 1770 and we are proud of our roots, so we are happy and privileged to be a Patron of Somerset Chamber and were pleased to sponsor this event.”
Cllr. Clare Paul from Somerset County Council added, “The event was hugely successful with a great turn out, enormously rewarding for all who attended and we have already placed correspondence to address some of the questions raised. The networking time was very successful where further introductions were brokered. Well done and thank you to Dale and the Chamber team.”