Chris Garcia was appointed as chief executive of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership in June 2013. After stints as an accountant and in HR he worked in a technology business and has also been a director of the South West Regional Development Agency. Aged 60, the father-of-two lives in Taunton.
Q) When LEPs were first devised by government there was very little money made available to them. Do you have enough money now?
A) We have core funding but we are not a Regional Development Agency. I get £250,000 as core funding per annum and there’s some money to pay for contractors so you can see that’s not a lot of money. The conversation I have with everybody is to say we can’t have the conversation of ‘the LEP needs to do that’ because it’s our LEP and it’s the local authority’s LEP, the Chambers’ LEP, the FSB’s LEP, social enterprises’ LEP. We have all got to work together and contribute in order to meet the challenges.
Q) Since the last general election, government’s approach to economic development has changed significantly with the economic downturn creating an often unpredictable environment. How does the LEP deal with that?
A) We’re obviously a new area. In some areas, the LEP simply took the nameplate of another organisation off and pinned up a new one. We have 19 authorities in our patch, that’s second highest number of authorities of any LEP. We’re also business focused so we have been out to consultation events. It’s from that analysis that we have drawn out that there are some really big opportunities here in the Heart of the South West. We have big opportunities like Hinkley that is going to create 10,000 jobs over next decade. Most LEPs would love to have projects like that. There is also the City Deal in Plymouth that will release and utilise MoD space – we’re looking at 10,000 jobs there. We have more climate and environmental technologists in Exeter than anywhere else in the world but we don’t have a cluster of business at the moment – that’s a big opportunity.
Q) What sort of impact has the flooding and closure of the main rail line had on the region’s economy?
A) The irony of Dawlish is that even if hadn’t happened, the railway line to Plymouth wouldn’t be running because of other blockages caused by the flooding. It’s clearly a very significant issue. From our perspective it does throw into really stark relief what under investment in infrastructure does. That was the primary message of our Strategic Economic Plan in December. We have said all the way along that we saw infrastructure as being our priority.
Q) What does the LEP want to see by way of a solution to the problems with the region’s rail network?
A) We’re not engineers so it’s not for us to say ‘tweak a signal here’ or ‘divert the line.’ What we want is a resilient transport network. We want to have faster journey times.
Q) As yet, there isn’t consensus on whether it’s better to divert the existing route inland at South Devon or to build a new link via Okehampton and Tavistock. The LEP is likely to hear from a range of communities in favour of each option. How will you formulate a response?
A) The first priority got to be get the line up and running. What business needs is a resilient network and a single line is not resilient so we need to have a dual line. From our point of view that’s for an engineering study to be undertaken and come up with options. What we want to do is to see a high speed, resilient service that we clearly don’t have it at the moment. What we do need is a commitment from government to fund that. In Somerset we need to have the ability for communities to get to their houses and we need to keep strategic road and rail links open but it’s not for an economic development organisation to say what the best engineering solution is.
Q) With the South East having also suffered flooding, how will you keep the Government’s attention focused on the South West?
A) If you take Somerset first of all, what we have there is a joint working group. Government has called for a concrete plan of action within six weeks so we’ve got until the end of March for that. There’s a lot of work going on to look at all potential areas from drainage and potential catchment areas. We’re going to have a similar sort of process with the railway saying ‘what are the key things that we need to do?’ and working jointly with other agencies.
Q) The Heart of the South West LEP works across a total of 19 different authorities – how much of a challenge is that?
A) It’s always a double-edged sword. Is it better to have variety or consistency? We work with what we have. I live in Taunton and I holiday in the South Hams so to have that diversity and variety is fabulous.
Q) But if your counterpart in Cornwall, Chris Pomfret, wants to talk to key figures it doesn’t take him long because there is a unitary authority rather than a mix of unitary, district and county councils. How do you manage?
A) The districts are used to working together. You have the East of Exeter Growth Point, there are things around Taunton and the City Deal has brought groups together. We have planning and infrastructure working groups and it gives us a bigger pool of people to call on. It’s really good partnership and that’s our strength. Partnership is fundamental to us. My view is that the LEP is there to facilitate and build those partnerships that will make a difference.
Q) That sounds like a public sector approach when the LEP is meant to be private sector-led. What’s your response to that?
A) Investment comes from two sources –the private sector and public sector. Our role is to maximise both so we can’t just say we’re only private sector. We have to recognise that the £200 billion that is out there is money controlled by the public sector and distributed by the public sector. If I’m to maximise the amount of money that comes into the South West, I have to satisfy the National Audit Office and government departments. We have to recognise that’s fundamental – but at the same time we need the flexibility to work however we wish.
Q) Tourism is a hugely important area for the South West’s economy but it’s a sector that rarely features in any sort of strategic plans for the region. What’s the LEP’s approach to tourism?
A) We’ve taken the view that our priorities are sector blind. Some other LEP areas have started from a premise of focusing on high value growth areas and have said will focus on them and typically tourism doesn’t get onto that list because it’s not high growth. We have deliberately not gone for that approach we have deliberately gone for the approach that says we’re sector blind but opportunity rich.
Q) The LEP has previously expressed disappointment about the disparity between the amount of European funding that Cornwall gets and the amount that Devon and Somerset get. How much of an issue is that?
A) We were particularly disappointed that when they allocated the European funding they didn’t take into account the geographical focus of the current programme. What the South West RDA did was to say there are particular areas in the South West that had high need – Plymouth, Torbay and Torridge – then there was a subsidiary layer of Devon, Somerset and Dorset. What they did was to top slice the programme for the whole of the South West so that a chunk of all of the money goes to Plymouth, Torridge and Torbay. When the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills came round to do the allocation of the European money they didn’t do that. There was no top slicing so the end result was that Gloucester and the west of England and Wiltshire were slightly better off so we lost out in that. We reckon that we have lost £10 million as a result. We have to work with what we have but what we can influence is assisted area status so what we have been putting a lot of effort into is trying to see that extended into Torbay and the north of patch. The reason that’s important is that under state aid rules if you’re in an assisted area you can get better leverage on the amount of public sector money is much better.
Q) How is the South West economy performing at the moment?
A) We would look at the region’s urban areas to be the growth generators so I look for Plymouth, Exeter and Taunton to be our significant growth points. To some extent we’re in a better situation than we were. There are some significant opportunities on the table. They are game changing. They are once in a lifetime opportunities. We have two, 10,000+ job creation schemes and it’s up to us how we make the most of those going forward. That’s where my focus is at the moment.