We all want Cheltenham’s economy to thrive. A strong economy brings jobs and opportunities close to home, particularly for our young people. Prosperity also offers a pathway out of the deprivation which still exists at unacceptable levels in parts of our town. But if we are going to make Cheltenham a town of opportunity for all we need a plan - one with a clear vision and clear goals.
Alarmingly, none exists in Cheltenham. The old version, which dates back to 2007, has been slammed by the Council itself as ‘out of date and no longer fit for purpose’. Scathingly, they also admit that it ‘does not concentrate on delivery of solutions to problems’.
So how is the process of devising a new strategy going? Not very well, it seems. Having resorted to advertising externally for someone to come up with a plan (there’s no one in Cheltenham who can do it, apparently) there was only one bidder. That bid was deemed too weak, and so the project has gone back out to tender in the hope that there will be better luck second time around. It hardly inspires confidence in any business thinking of setting up here.
All the while, there is a growing sense that our competitors are driving forward. Readers of my last column may recall that I examined statistics comparing us with Gloucester. Steered by Conservative MP Richard Graham, Gloucester is delivering a long-established plan for its own economic future. Not only have they reached their £500 million target for private investment, Gloucester is set to receive a further £60 million for the retail development due in the Kings Quarter area. Sadly these figures dwarf investment here in Cheltenham, even allowing for welcome developments such as the Brewery Phase II.
For those of us who are proud of Cheltenham that's a worrying trend. But I believe it’s entirely reversible. We can do so much better here in Cheltenham. If we raise our game, we have the potential to become a key economic hub, building on our expertise in technology, but also the other areas in which we thrive, such as communications, engineering and tourism. Our goal should be nothing less than making Cheltenham the most attractive town in Britain to do business.
But if we’re serious about competing over the next decade I believe we need to get far more professional. An economic strategy for Cheltenham should be a central priority, not an afterthought. We must also prioritise consulting local businesses. I have visited dozens of Cheltenham employers, and many are full of ideas about how we can make Cheltenham more competitive if they were only asked.
So, if you are a Cheltenham business or are thinking about setting up here, I would be delighted to hear from you. Let me know how we can make our town more business friendly. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Together, with a clear vision, I believe we can create a town of opportunity for all.