The North Somerset Business Leader interviews North Somerset Council leader Cllr Nigel Ashton.
What is North Somerset Council doing to attract inward investment?
We are already ahead of the game in this respect and are working with our three neighbouring councils on a one billion pound investment package, from central government, which has come about by our being business friendly and having a proven track record of delivering.
We’re already attracting businesses and inward investment – just look at all the developments that are happening around the town and the increase in new businesses, supermarkets and major retailers investing here.
The new Tutto restaurant, for example, has been made possible because of the work done by North Somerset Council. It is an iconic attraction but ironically many were saying it shouldn’t be erected and that it would be an eye-sore.
But I fought for it to be built because it fits in with the new and exciting vision for Weston and the investment drive we are pursuing. Such developments represent the future of the town.
How successful an event was the Weston Showcase in communicating what the Council is doing?
It’s really exciting times here in North Somerset and the investors and business people who came to the Weston Showcase in March realised that this is a place where you can do business.
We’re welcoming business and investment here in what is a superb place to set up and prosper. We have access to a fast-growing and successful international airport, access to some fine educational establishments that are second to none, and super-fast broadband is on its way as well. We are doing far more than other areas and the work being done to improve the area is not “child’s play”.
For example we are looking at twenty million pounds worth of work on JCT21 and significant improvement in the rail service. The Weston Showcase was a good springboard to communicate that we’re open for business.
Do you feel there is too much focus and expectation pinned on the Tropicana?
I do not blame people for being interested in the Tropicana but a small number of people seem to be focused on it from a negative point of view, and you have to question their motives and why they’re involved.
All North Somerset Council is doing is tidying up an out of date, crumbling eye-sore that hasn’t been open for 12 years. If anybody had come forward with a viable plan I would have been delighted, and that can still happen, if such a plan exists.
Recent suggestions for the Tropicana are not based on reality and the public shouldn’t have to subsidise a failing project that hasn’t been making any money for years. As you know the courts have refused the application from Mr Mead to go to judicial review so we can stop wasting public money on court cases and get on and improve Weston seafront even further.
Why have no developments east of the motorway been pursued by the Council?
We have not pursued developments east of the motorway, as if we allowed this, it would take away much of the investment that we’re trying to attract into Weston-super-Mare. We need to regenerate parts of WSM before we allow expansion that would suck investment out of the town.
What certain people have failed to mention is that the land they want to develop east of the motorway is all in their own ownership, which is understandable from that land owners point of view, but not in the best interests of the town.
Have the current economic conditions held back any of North Somerset Council’s plans for the region?
We have had substantial financial resources taken away, 45% of our entire budget to be precise and we have to face this economic reality.
We also have a 3 per cent year on year growth in the elderly population amidst a critical shortage of resources. But we have a clear direction and a dedicated staff that knows what we have to achieve.
We have put in place directives and policies which will enable the Council to successfully carry out its functions and services in circumstances we’ve never experienced before.
So do you feel the recession is as bad as the media portrays?
We are in a serious situation and the worst hasn’t even happened yet. But I do think the media have a lot to answer for in that they are dwelling on the worse aspects.
We will not really realise how bad it is until local jobs and services start to suffer. Business is being cautious at a time when they ought to be investing in the future – which can be a problem and can be made worse by the media because it stifles confidence.
We have six years of cuts in funding and we are only at the start of the second year, so there is much more to come.
Another big project that has re-surfaced recently is the Severn Barrage. Would you like to see these plans become a reality?
I understand it would be a huge generator of power and a huge engineering feat in itself, but my concerns are the affect it would have on Royal Portbury Docks which is a huge employer in the area. They have invested a lot of money to become one the biggest docks on the West Coast.
There is also a call for moving the Severn Barrage project further upstream together with a lagoon, as this would generate just as much electricity and not have an effect on areas of natural beauty, flooding and would not lead to a silting up of a fairly narrow channel for shipping.
If it does go ahead it would of course provide scope for local jobs and we’d work hard to ensure the local college is involved and that the local economy benefits primarily from the scheme. We’d be looking to have a big share in the 40,000 plus jobs it is suggested the barrage would create.
Do you feel there is enough positive coverage of the work North Somerset Council is doing?
Frankly, no, and when I hear people say that we’re not investing in the area, and especially Weston-super-Mare I think to myself what a ridiculous comment this is.
To be honest I am deeply disappointed in the Weston Echo itself, for previously sanctioning articles with quotes from third parties that didn’t accurately present the work North Somerset Council is doing and contained personal slurs against me and my colleagues.
I think it is really sad when people result to personal abuse like this – I do not intend to step down to their level.
When you consider the investment in Weston in what are such difficult economic times it is something that should be reported positively but there seems to be a desire to focus on the negatives.
Take Locking Parklands for example – this is a self-contained village not just a faceless urban extension and is a development we can be proud of and where people want to live. What we’ve been conscious of is not creating just another blanket development – that is just houses covering a green area. This is much more than that.
And look at all the other developments and projects – the Knightstone development, junction 21, the seafront enhancements and high-street developments that we should be talking about.
Moving to a broader national question, do you feel there has been too much of an obsession with school leavers going to University?
While everybody should have the opportunity to go to university the benefit of a working scholarship or apprenticeship needs to be recognised.
I have been very impressed with the apprentices we have had working at North Somerset Council in various roles and I want to increase awareness of the very good work that is being done in this area.
I have spent time with the apprentices who have been here and they have told me what needs to improve and what has been beneficial about the scheme and what hasn’t.
I feel that apprenticeships need a re-branding and re-marketing and parents need to be educated about the benefit of them.
We also need to face up to the fact that there are too many meaningless degrees – how many more media degrees can we have when you consider that there isn’t enough media jobs being created.
Plumbing and electrical apprenticeships are well established but what about professional working scholarships for jobs in banking, finance and the digital world – people need working experience in these sectors and apprenticeships can be equally as valuable, if not more so, than degrees in doing this in some sectors.
As a footnote what would you like to say to the residents and business people of North Somerset?
I am absolutely dedicated to North Somerset and we as an organisation have instrumented enormous change to become the number one performing council in the UK.
All I want to do is steer North Somerset Council through these difficult times as best as possible. I am excited about what I see coming in the next few years and I am not going to stoop to trading personal insults, but get on with the important task of securing investment for this region.
These really are exciting times for the area. We have had the Prime Minster David Cameron, the Chancellor George Osborne, Transport Secretary Justine Greening and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander all come to see the investment and growth that is happening here. This speaks volume for what we are achieving in the region.
* Please note – all views expressed are those of the interviewee and do no reflect or represent the views of the Weston & North Somerset Ech0 – which is an independent online business news portal.
Cllr Nigel Ashton is the leader of North Somerset Council – http://www.n-somerset.gov.uk/