''Over the next 25 years I am sure that Gloucester will overtake Cheltenham on a number of criteria. We will carry on going up, Cheltenham will fall behind.” So said Richard Graham, the energetic and business-minded MP for Gloucester in an interview last month with the Citizen.
Now, let’s not be utterly naïve here. What MPs say about the prospects for their constituencies has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Promises of a bright future are virtually guaranteed. But the language used on this occasion was striking. And for those like me who are hugely proud of our town, it raised a real concern. People in Cheltenham have told me about the sense of energy and dynamism they see coming out of Gloucester. But does that impression reflect reality? Is Gloucester really stealing a march on our town?
One important indicator is private investment. In recent years Gloucester has secured a massive £460 million for Gloucester Quays, with an additional £34 million for the derelict Railway Triangle. Plans are also afoot to spend £60 million on the upgrade of King’s Quarter. All in all, Gloucester City Council have exceeded their private investment target of £500 million. It appears there is more to come.
The position in Cheltenham is, by comparison, rather more modest. Even taking into account the investment due in phase 2 of the Brewery scheme and the revamp of the old Odeon site, the overall figures are pretty small compared to Gloucester. And to rub salt into the wounds, Gloucester beat Cheltenham to secure £2m for railway station improvements. Cheltenham was in the running, but had its bid rejected.
Statistics don’t always give the full picture of course. Let’s not forget that Gloucester is (with all due respect) starting from a lower economic base. Cheltenham still remains overall a competitive place to do business, and we have a far higher proportion of citizens educated to high levels.
But the signs are that that the old order may be changing. According to the Centre for International Competitiveness, in 2013 Cheltenham dropped seven places in the UK scale. Gloucester, by comparison, jumped by 24 places. Perhaps more worryingly, 229 Cheltenham companies closed in the first quarter of 2014, compared to just 126 in Gloucester.
So, whilst there is no need for panic, I think the figures overall make sobering reading. They suggest that Gloucester’s leaders may have a point. If we are going to stop Cheltenham falling behind we need a clear economic vision, and one which prioritises investment and employment opportunities. Over the coming months I will be fleshing out my economic vision for Cheltenham. It will be unashamedly ambitious. I believe it needs to be.
Mark Twain once stated “If you stand still you fall behind.” Wise words that we would do well to heed.