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Gloucestershire Business News

What does the Western Gateway mean for the Forest of Dean?

An online forum - What the Western Gateway means to the Forest of Dean - hosted by Business West took place this morning (24th May).

The Western Gateway is a cross-border economic partnership of local authorities, city regions, local enterprise partnerships and central government in England and Wales.

Among the panellists was editor Mark Owen. The event was chaired by Business West's Gloucestershire director, Ian Mean.

The panel was completed by Western Gateway chair Katherine Bennett, Forest of Dean District Council leader Councillor Tim Gwilliam, Versarien chief executive Neill Ricketts - who chairs the Forest Economic Partnership - and Rural Technologies Ltd managing director Andrew Callard.

Introducing the meeting, Ian Mean said the Forest of Dean has been ignored for too long.

He said: "It's the gateway between two nations and several counties. The time is right to start promoting and shouting about it."

Katherine Bennett described the Western Gateway as being like a bigger version of a LEP. It stretches from Swansea to Swindon and Weston-super-Mare to Tewkesbury, and includes eight cities and 11 universities.

The Western Gateway's aim for the area as a whole is a greener, fairer and stronger economy, focused on connectivity, global gateway (export and investment led growth) and innovation.

Tim Gwilliam said: "It easy for us to look back and complain we haven't had our share, but that won't do us any good! We have a generational opportunity here with the Western Gateway. The Forest of Dean is at the epicentre of it."

He talked about the opportunities for businesses to move to the area.

"Businesses in Japan and parts of Europe give their workforces a lifestyle that they enjoy living while working for that company. I believe that the Forest of Dean can offer that lifestyle and that opportunity for business.

"Imagine the Forest of Dean with proper transport facilities and proper communication facilities, we know it's a wonderful place to live and visit. But with the right connectivity it could be a wonderful place to work.

"With people like the Western Gateway behind us, the Forest doesn't have to change and lose its magic. I truly believe it can become the epicentre of the Western Gateway."

Neil Ricketts said: "In the past, it's always been Lydney v Cinderford or Lydney v Coleford, but this is about the Forest being part of a bigger agenda.

"Now we've got a great opportunity to join in with South Wales. When you're competing, it's about being part of a great team. We're competing against the North and Midlands, not against each other.

"Problems are easier to fix if we're part of a bigger organisation. What we've got in the Forest is really special and I don't think we need to lose our identity.

"We need to get our students to fill the skills gaps that businesses need to fill, get the right people in right places and offer our support to drive that on."

Andrew Callard said people don't understand that the Forest of Dean is about far more than tourism and the food and drink sector.

He said: "The Forest has 10 key industry sectors, and manufacturing employs over 16 per cent. But transport is a major issues for all rural areas and connectivity is very important. The Forest has is an issue with being over reliant on the car."

Punchline editor Mark talked about discovering hidden business gems while out in the Forest of Dean delivering magazines.

"Before the pandemic we were out delivering magazines ourselves to high streets and business parks across the county. People know about Vantage Point and Lydney Harbour estate, but there's lots of small individual business parks all over the Forest.

"A prime example was I walked into a company on a small estate with six businesses. The guy said there were three of them making fans. They are part of air conditioning units that he's sold to 15 British embassies around the world.

"This is a unique, high tech business in the Forest of Dean which is exporting round the world. That's what we need to champion."

Katherine said: "Our area is fantastic at innovation and manufacturing. We actually do know how to work from home and use virtual means. I'm happy to shout about our area and I know the other board members are happy to do it too.

"We want business leaders to get out there and talk. Businesses listens to other businesses on where is good to invest. We need to say to them: 'Come here, the skills are great, the opportunities are great.'"

Neil added: "It all starts with good education and job creation. Once you get people employed, whether at home, in factories or elsewhere, the economy thrives and people start to spend money.

"We need young people to come into the Forest of Dean to start the cycle that creates employment and businesses. "

Katherine encouraged councils and businesses in the Forest of Dean to call on the Western Gateway for support if they need it.

She said: "Success for me is a strong voice on regional bids. If the Forest of Dean is fighting for something that you'd like Western Gateway to support, I'm happy to do that.

"We need to work with other businesses large and small on encouraging businesses to come and invest in the area. If businesses get behind this and fight for inward investment, I really feel that as a partnership, the Forest of Dean can do better. "

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