Paul Wilson, Chief Executive of the West of England LEP, tells us how LEPs work, the spirit of cooperation in the South West and his future plans to bring growth to the region
Hello Paul, tell us about the West of England LEP and your role as Chief Executive
Firstly, I want to talk a bit about LEPs in general and why they are important. Since the end of World War 2 we have seen a trend of centralising power within London, including the removal of local powers and knowledge from the core cities into the capital. There’s no denying that London is an amazing capital and global hub, but after the economic crisis it was clear it was no longer feasible for London to dictate economic policy and to drive growth by itself. The LEPs are a mechanism to grow the economy by supporting business within the core cities outside of London. I think that there is a consensus among politicians in central government that this is the right way to go. LEPs are fairly autonomous in how they are run, which means they can be customised for local priorities but quality can vary: some will succeed and others will fail. Some LEPs are dominated by the local authority and others are dominated by the business community.
The West of England LEP is very active, engaged with 800 businesses across the region and thousands of individuals. The LEP has three governing elements:
- The Business Community across the region
- The Local Authority: we work with the four local authorities in the region (Bristol, Bath NES, North Somerset and South Glos) and share their boundaries
- Educators: we work with universities, colleges and schools to develop employable skills
We have four programs that we focus on:
- Infrastructure and Place, including property, connectivity and transport
- Investment and Marketing, to encourage people to do business in the area
- Skills Development, working with educators to bridge the ‘skill gap’
- Going for Growth, our very successful growth fund for businesses. We have invested around £14m of public funds into small businesses, matched by £41m from private investors. This is estimated to create 1000 new jobs and safeguard 500. We will be launching a second round with a smaller amount of funding that businesses can bid for in March.
As Chief Executive of the West of England LEP I have the responsibility of keeping all elements of the LEP working together and promoting our activity wherever I go. The LEP can only survive by all stakeholders working together, interacting freely and having collective ownership of activities. I spend a great deal of time networking, influencing and engaging with people. I also have to manage the changing landscape and plan accordingly: we have experienced cuts to the public sector with more on the way, so future strategy will rely on getting the private sector more involved.
What challenges are you facing over the next 12 months?
The big challenge for 2014 is our Strategic Economic Plan. This is the plan for future LEP activity that we have submitted to the government. The economy in the region is worth £25.5bn with 85% of businesses employing fewer than 10 people. We have identified £1bn worth of ‘market failures’ where intervention can make a real difference. The funding we supply is very diverse and is designed for maximum economic impact. We have asked for £70m in funding for 2015 and we are fairly confident due to the very good return on investment possible. We submit the plan in March, get the results in July and in autumn we will be analysing business cases to decide where to invest funds.
What is your view on the South West business scene?
What sets the South West business apart from other regions is its willingness to collaborate. In other regions businesses tend to silo themselves within their sectors, acting mainly in the interests of their particular industry. South West businesses are far more willing to work together across sector boundaries and put the welfare of the region first. People who work here have a great sense of pride in the region and recognise it as a great place to live and work.
Do you have any Non-Executive Directorships?
I am a trustee of the charity Unseen, which combats modern day slavery, especially in regards to sex trafficking. They supply safe-houses for women and work closely with police to help victims and prosecute offenders. I have also been a trustee of the Greenbelt Festival for the past 10 years.
Do you have any advice that you’d pass on to a newly appointed company director?
Think internationally right from the very start. Everyone needs to start taking exports more seriously. We have had a very western-centric view of the global economy in the past hundred years or so, but that has started to shift and the global marketplace is now a far more level playing field. You must think about the importance of international trade no matter what your business is and plan accordingly. Trade organisations such as UKTI and Business West can supply you with helpful advice about how to do this.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I have a wife, two kids and a dog, all of whom I love spending time with. On the weekends I take my son to rugby, and I am pleased with how the sport has helped him develop as a person by giving him confidence and a sense of fair play. I am passionate about food from my years living in Switzerland and France, where food culture is very different. There chefs are local celebrities and are thought of like DJs: local producers supply the food and the chefs mix them into new and exciting dishes. It’s good to see the shift towards localism in food in the UK, and I believe the South West region is one of the leaders. Local food is good for businesses, people and the environment.
Who is your hero/personal inspiration?
My personal inspiration is Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and pioneer of microfinance. Yunus founded a bank in Bangladesh that supplied small loans to individuals who do not usually have access to finance, especially women, amongst the poorest communities. Microfinance has a massive impact on raising people out of poverty without resorting to charity and Yunus can be credited with developing the concept and the industry.
What is on your I-Pod and what are you reading right now?
I grew up in the 80’s indie scene, so I like music from that era, including The Cure, The Smiths and Bauhaus. I also enjoy modern indie bands that have a similar sound such as Alt-J and The XX. I have three books on the go at the moment. ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ by Clayton Christensen and ‘Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos’ by Mitchell Waldrop.
What has been your experience of working with Moon Consulting?
Moon Consulting are an excellent business. With the expanding job market and potential for growth in the region the future is bright.