FOCUS: SOUTH-WEST - Southern self-rule needs a PR push/A development agency is being set up to help the South-West take charge of its own destiny. But just how it is going to be run and how it will market the region is still surprisingly uncertain

Think of Devon or Cornwall and images of endless coastline, wild open countryside and intimate hospitality instantly spring to mind. Compare these images to a mental picture of Swindon - the commercial powerbase for the likes of National Power and Allied Dunbar Assurance - and the challenges facing the new South-West England Development Agency (SWEDA) begin to take shape.

Think of Devon or Cornwall and images of endless coastline, wild

open countryside and intimate hospitality instantly spring to mind.

Compare these images to a mental picture of Swindon - the commercial

powerbase for the likes of National Power and Allied Dunbar Assurance -

and the challenges facing the new South-West England Development Agency

(SWEDA) begin to take shape.



Set to come into force on 1 April - as one of an eventual nine Regional

Development Agencies across England - SWEDA will cover an area larger

than Wales, from Tewkesbury down to Bournemouth, then out west to the

Isles of Scilly, embracing a population of 4.9 million, with Devon and

Cornwall throwing its lot in with Avon, Dorset, Gloucestershire,

Somerset, and Wiltshire for the first time.



Many feel the geographical remit is too large, an opinion fuelled by the

recent gaffe that saw logistics used as an excuse for SWEDA failing to

advertise its Exeter-based senior vacancies in the Gloucester press.



And there is uncertainty about how the organisation will marry the

economic disparity between the more prosperous northern end of the

region and the far South-West.



However, Sir Michael Lickiss, who is set to become SWEDA chairman,

remains decidedly upbeat. ’I think it would be better to work in a seven

county region because they all bring their complementary strengths and

weaknesses, so there is a cohesive union,’ he says.



From the beginning of next month, SWEDA will promote sustainable

economic development, social and physical regeneration and co-ordinate

training, investment and business support for the region. With Jill

Barrow as chief executive of a 12-strong business-led board, the new

entity will take over the work of Government agencies in the area,

including English Partnerships and parts of the Rural Development

Commission. It will have a say in transport, education, public health,

housing, leisure and tourism.



Chris Davies, director of Grayling Bristol, says the South-West needs to

wake up to just how important this new agency is likely to be. He points

out that SWEDA will be responsible for marketing the region overseas,

which until now has been the job of the West of England Development

Agency and Devon and Cornwall Development International. ’There is still

a long way to go in forming this organisation, so there is no definitive

strategic plan as yet,’ he says. ’But with the Government’s agenda to

devolve power away from Whitehall to regional government, organisations

in the South-West need to be aware that this is the agency that will be

lobbying central Government and Europe for funds.’



In other words, unless the region pulls together, it could find itself

in the same political situation as Wales or Scotland, but without the

finances.



This point is underlined by Ian Muir, managing director of Bristol-based

Strategy PR, the agency currently retained by English Partnerships

South-West. ’The economic map is being redrawn and the South-West is

operating as a region for the first time,’ he says. ’PR professionals

with public or private sector clients in the region cannot afford to

ignore an organisation with such influence over people’s lives and

businesses.’



Mark Hunt, director of PR for Allied Domecq Spirits and Wines, wonders

just how SWEDA will affect his company. Although employing about 300

staff at its Bristol-based offices and having strong West Country roots

(Harveys is one of its key brands) as a global operator, Hunt says that

his company has more of an international focus.



He is not alone in his uncertainty. Former building society Cheltenham

and Gloucester, which employs around 2,000 staff in three administrative

sites around Gloucester and branches across the South-West, is also

playing the waiting game. ’We have no plans to do anything specific,’

says Peter Mounty, head of communications and quality. ’But if somebody

from SWEDA wants to talk, they’ll find me very receptive.’



This is a surprisingly relaxed attitude for an agency which promises to

help the region punch its weight in the global marketplace, actively

encourage inward investment and potentially pave the way for full-scale

regional Government. But until SWEDA officially comes into being, any

preparation can only be based on informed speculation.



This creates obvious problems for those seeking to advise clients. Linda

Taylor, deputy managing director of Bristol-based PR agency JBP

Associates, says: ’We have a political unit gathering intelligence and

monitoring on behalf of our clients, but we can’t put together any

concrete strategy as the new regional development agency is an unknown

entity.’



However, it seems a safe bet that the promised economic regeneration

will impact on many sectors, from manufacturers to service

providers.



’For strong economic development, there are knock-on effects,’ says

Taylor.



’You need the right incentives, the right facilities and the right

environment to encourage growth. These are all linked to issues such as

housing and infrastructure.’ With clients such as Weston-super-Mare

transport operator FirstGroup on its books, JBP is keeping its finger

firmly on the pulse.



This attention to the process of change is a view echoed by Tim Stanley,

managing director of Golley Slater PR in Bristol. Among his agency’s

clients is Stride Treglown, a large Bristol-based practice of

architects, whose recent projects include the new Bentalls store in

Bristol city centre and a Royal Mail installation at Plympton near

Plymouth. ’The firm has a particular interest in seeing that the

transport infrastructure is there to support their commercial

structures,’ he says.



Certainly, it seems that better road links will be a major issue in

boosting the region’s economy. But it is the potential raft of

opportunities that should be making businesses sit up and take

notice.



For a region that has the highest share of self-employed people in the

UK and a large number of small and medium-sized businesses, a single

Government body that promises to promote inward investment could be a

real bonus.



Come April, SWEDA will need to be pretty swift in delivering some high

profile results. The message seems to be that the South-West may not be

ready, but it is definitely poised. As Stanley says: ’There are still

some uncertainties, but the business community is certainly hopeful that

the agency will be good news and bring investment, jobs and prosperity

to the area.’ SWEDA had better not let it down.



SOLAR ECLIPSE: THE SOUTH-WEST PREPARES FOR AN INVASION



On 11 August 1999, the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century will

take place. Such an event was last visible from the UK mainland in 1927,

and the next opportunity to see it will be outside most of our

lifetimes, in 91 years’ time.



For those gripped by such phenomena, the ’path of totality’ for this

August’s eclipse is almost 200 miles wide, running west to east across

the Scilly Isles and most of Cornwall, western Devon and Alderney,

before advancing down to Asia. In the central region of the path, the

sun will be completely blocked out by the moon for about two

minutes.



The various tourist boards in the South-West expect an influx of

visitors by land, sea and air to witness the eclipse. This led to a

flood of scare-stories at the end of last year, with reports that roads

would be closed or gridlocked, and accommodation in the West Country was

already fully-booked. Last November, the Mirror even ran a lighthearted

story discouraging women from getting pregnant, to avoid babies arriving

during peak traffic congestion.



Local councils have embarked on a major media relations offensive to

dispel the myths and a Devon and Cornwall Co-ordinating Group which

involves the emergency services, local authorities and the military, is

dealing with traffic management, emergency planning and media

strategy.



Mark Nicholson, press and PR officer for Cornwall County Council, says

that if anything, some resorts are underbooked for August.



’It took a while to work out contingency plans for police, traffic and

the utilities, and in the vaccum of information there were a lot of

negative stories. Now we have some imaginative strategies and

military-style planning worked out, we are talking to the media to let

the public know the region will not be an unpleasant place to be this

summer.’ The BBC and local broadcasters will also be involved in

disseminating traffic and accommodation information nearer the time.



The West Country Tourist Board is now urging visitors to ’Come early,

stay long and leave late!’ Its publicity material lists do’s - such as

allowing adequate time for journeys, and don’ts - setting off without a

firm confirmation of accommodation or travelling on the day of the

eclipse.



The irony, though, is that there is only a 30 to 40 per cent chance of

clear visibility of the sun on the day.



THE COUNTRYSIDE AGENCY: REGENERATING THE REGION



From April, the Rural Development Commission (RDC), the Government

agency which promotes the economic and social well-being of the people

who live and work in rural England,will merge with the Countryside

Commission to form the Countryside Agency. The RDC’s rural regeneration

work will transfer to the new regional development agencies.



In the South-West, pulling these activities together with English

Partnerships’ regional programme and the Government’s Single

Regeneration Budget should provide the impetus for regeneration activity

to move ahead. The new regional development agency, SWEDA, will look at

the overall economic picture and link work in urban environs with what

is needed for rural areas.



The importance of keeping the dynamism of the South-West’s rural economy

should not be underestimated. While the region is home to just nine per

cent of the population, it accounts for almost one-third of England’s

designated rural development areas and the people living in them. There

are six such pockets in parts of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset,

Wiltshire and the Forest of Dean, each with its own programme.



In the past five years, the RDC has spent pounds 16.5 million on

regeneration activities in the South-West. This sum has levered in

pounds 58.3 million in other funds from Europe, local authorities,

Training and Enterprise Councils and other sources.



In Dorset, these funds have facilitated projects such as the

revitalisation of the Portland area following the closure of its naval

establishments.



The former naval base is now a commercial port and the new UK

headquarters of Cable and Wireless Marine. The Defence Research

Establishment at Southwell has been converted into a business park.



But the key to the Rural Development Programme is the partnerships

through which the projects are delivered. To recognise this, the RDC has

run a national competition for people’s ideas, the Rural Challenge,

awarding prizes of up to pounds 1 million to the winners. Designed to

support innovative ventures, the community and the environment, the

awards encourage links with the private sector and local strategies.



Signpost, a network of interactive touch key information kiosks,

designed to support tourism in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly,

has been one winner. Led by the Rural Economic Partnership, the project

draws on the resources of Devon and Cornwall TEC, the local councils,

tourist boards and companies such as ICL.



From April, it will be up to SWEDA to inspire greater achievements and

build on the success of what the RDC has already put in place.



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