I recently attended a round table organised by Into Somerset, an organisation set up to stimulate inwards investment into the county. The purpose of the invitation, which was extended also to Agusta Westland, Thales and BAe Systems AeI, was for the leaders of Into Somerset to gain a better understanding of the issues faced by industry when looking to either set up or sustain businesses in a part of the country which is not at the top of most lists of likely places to start a technology business.
Our ready acceptance of the invitation was driven by twin motives of wishing to contribute to an area where we’re just setting up shop, and to learn the views of others with similar interests. As it turned out, our fellow industry contributors were all established players in the area, whose continued presence is key to its prospects.
The location of our UK HQ, Southampton, is perhaps not at first sight the most obvious choice. However, Southampton does have a lot going for it. The city hosts one of the top universities in the country, and it provides us with very flexible accommodation on its Science Park. The fastest growing regional airport in the country is a few minutes away, as are mainline stations that see us in London in little over an hour. The M3 and M27 motorways run close by, allowing easy access to recreation in the Meon Valley, Test Valley and New Forest from the suburban living possibilities of Portsmouth, Fareham, Eastleigh, Winchester, Bournemouth and of course Southampton itself.
Somerset on the other hand seems to tick rather fewer boxes. The UK has always been far too London-centric. Investment in roads that far from London is focussed largely on the motorways that radiate from the capital. The M4 therefore serves north Somerset reasonably well, and the M5 tourist route to Devon and Cornwall gives a serviceable connection to Bristol. Beyond that, the road network is not good. The Great Western Railway offers a reasonable connection from Taunton to London, and obviously the Bristol area is easily accessible by rail from there too. Places like Yeovil are somewhat off the beaten track, with distance and the number of intervening stops working against rapid transit.
Bristol and Exeter Universities would both claim to be in the same league as Southampton, but only Bristol is located geographically within Somerset. Both are working to develop science parks, but neither yet has anything to speak of.
Outside of Bristol, Somerset hosts relatively few technology companies (with a few shining exceptions, such as Agusta Westland). This means that for start-ups, there are few customers on the doorstep. From the point of view of larger companies, it means that their supply chain is tenuous compared to that to be found in, say, the Thames Valley or the West Midlands.
All four companies presenting to Into Somerset were agreed that the really major issue is the attraction and retention of top quality staff at a range of levels of age and experience. Innovation is the key to success in technology businesses, and that depends to a great extent on younger staff who tend to have more energy and enthusiasm, to say nothing of their more recent exposure to the latest academic research during their undergraduate years. These are the very people that it is hardest to find in Somerset. Somerset youngsters go away to university in the usual way, but there is little to draw them back. They, and others new to the area, may well accept jobs in the county later in their careers. Typically this is when they have settled down with family responsibilities, and have gained the maturity to appreciate what a more rural lifestyle has to offer.
Into Somerset leaders know that if they are to attract significantly more business into the county, they will have their work cut out to make the business environment sufficiently attractive to overcome some of the historical disincentives. From our point of view their initiative in supporting the creation of the Yeovil Innovation Centre, with its flexible and affordable office space, is a big step in the right direction. Without it we would have had great difficulty in finding the right commercial deal for our first independent move into the West Country.