When the powerful and progressive Bridgwater Borough Council was dissolved by the Local Government reforms of the early 70s, the aim was to bring town and countryside together in new unified ‘Districts’. Originally ours was going to be called Bridgwater Bay -a name which would maintain the key position of Bridgwater in any new authority. But people outside the town didn’t like that and so they came up with Sedgemoor. Today it’s very clear that the aim was the submersion of Bridgwater as a junior part of the district with the reality of the system being ’Direct Rule from Cheddar’. And that’s how it’s been for nearly 50 years. But now there’s a whole new future ahead of us here in Sedgewater and this became clear at this weeks ‘Sedgemoor Business Conference-Challenging Perceptions’’ at the McMillan Theatre. Town Council Leader Brian Smedley was at the event and believes it’s clearer now than ever that Sedgemoor needs Bridgwater and there’s never been a stronger case for working together. But…..is that even possible? Let’s see.
From the outset of the Conference it became clear that the major new initiatives that are changing our landscape and economy are situated right here in Bridgwater and we all need to benefit from them. The opening speaker was Labour Lord and economist David Triesman who stressed over and over again the need for ‘Partnership working’.
Sedgemoor’s Assistant Director of Inward Investment and growth, Claire Pearce, spoke about her Districts glorious future, but the drivers were all Bridgwater based -The Mercure, the new M&S , the new Lidl’s, new Police Station, new Hospital, 6,500 houses, the College, the Tidal Barrier and of course Hinkley. Bridgwater is-as it was and as it should be – in the driving seat for Sedgemoor’s economic renaissance.
Introducing Gravity to the Equasion
It was Martin Bellamy of the Salamanca Group, that lit the blue touch paper with his plans for the former ROF site as the new Huntspill Energy Park – which they’ve finally got a name for. ‘Gravity’ the logo in the shape of the nearby Starling murmurations. This would be an ‘innovation campus’ the like of which was more common in California than Catcott. It was an example of inward investment, making this little section of the M5 corridor a key focus for the future in the otherwise desert wilderness that lay between Bristol and Exeter.
Whenever EDF PR man David Eccles turns up who know you’ll get pretty much the same story. HPC is ‘on track’ for 2025 with ’25,000 jobs’, ‘benefits for the Somerset supply chain’, ‘community impact mitigation money’ in the local purse providing opportunities for all’. Slick PR from a French Company using Chinese Money to provide British energy. On this occasion Brigadier Eccles thought he better start with a bit of competition as he learnt that the Salamanca Boss took the name from a key battle that his regiment was in (Salamanca 1812, Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula war), immediately bringing up his own Royal Tank Regiments first world war battle honours at Cambrai (1917). One all. Nevertheless, like it or not (and remember we didn’t have a vote in it locally) Hinkley Point is clearly the main driver to the current day economic focus on the Bridgwater area. And of course the Battle of Cambrai was a good example of ‘partnership working’ being the first major example of ‘combined arms’ operations. Although we did lose 179 tanks.
Bigging up the Bridgwater
Brandie Deignan is from the UK’ fastest growing hospitality business ‘Black and White’. She was here to big up the new Mercure hotel and tell us why Marco Pierre White had chosen to open one of his famous brand restaurants here. They’d done a feasibility study (of course they had) and Bridgwater was an ’emerging community with great access, history and character’. They’d identified the demand and they wanted to be part of something special.
Andy Berry is the relatively new Principal (oh, and Chief Executive) of Bridgwater (and Taunton) College. As such he has a lot to be proud of. A £50million turnover, £38million inward investment, 20,000 students (this figure grows every time I hear it and I’m sure one day they’ll just say ‘oh infinity’) and 1,500 staff, making it one of only 5 ‘National Colleges’. “Learning never ends” says Andy and again he joined the chorus urging partnership working. Of which the College is a living example, having tapped in very quickly to the potential of the nuclear sector with a new National College for Nuclear and joint working with Local Enterprise Partnerships, Local councils and local businesses including DHL Morrisons, Mulberry and crucially EDF. All very praiseworthy….if he hadn’t had to slip in those extra few photos of him meeting the Queen and him outside number 10.
Back to Business
Then it was the turn of some local businessmen to lay their wares on the market stall. Tom Wright from Yeo Valley reminded people of the dairy industry and the value of Isleport Business centre (just one junction up from Bridgwater on the M5 corridor) and Greg O’Connor spoke of Marks and Spencers welcome return to Bridgwater. He couldn’t actually remember why the old Marks and Spencers had left in the 1980’s but was sure it was for ‘sound business reasons’. And now they were back for exactly the same, possibly inadvertently using the phrase ‘Now Bridgwater is worth it’ (I’m sure we always were). Either way. He ‘welcomed competition’. He especially welcomed the new Lidl’s opening up next door to him and he especially seemed relieved to welcome the recent climbdown by Express Parks car parking surpremos to stop booking people who parked there but also wanted to shop in the town (which is why the car park was put there in the first place…so these edge of town developments complimented and didn’t destroy town centres!). Then he faded off into remembering the 4 (or 5) words beginning with ‘I’ that they’d picked on as a work ethos ‘integrity, inspirational, in-touch’. No I can’t remember the 4th one either, but ‘in touch’ is probably 2 words. So it could well have been ‘in Bridgwater (finally!)’.
Matt Heard from Natural England ratcheted the thinking up a gear by reminding people of the natural environment that all this business and development exists in and around. He reminded us of the old ‘Bridgwater Bay’ name and the reality of the location, which was widely known as a vast nature reserve with world class natural assets and wildlife from the levels of Sedgemoor and Avalon, the hill ranges of the Mendips and the Quantocks, the rivers Parret and Brue. We undeniably live in an area of outstanding natural beauty and whatever we did had to be sustainable. He didn’t just mean industrial growth as he reminded us that tourism had leapt in recent years from a 100,000 yearly flow through to now a quarter of a million. We had to coexist with Booming Bitterns and Great White Egrets. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about -although personally I’ve taken little interest in Lord of the Rings myself.
Keynote speaker was Martin Johnson the Marketing Director of Earth. “Hi, I’m Martin from Earth” was his well rehearsed opening line. Martin was all about ‘place marketing’ and ‘getting the right brand’ . And it was his job to market Sedgemoor. And here the cat was out of the bag. To market Sedgemoor you had to focus on Bridgwater (see, they DO need us). He listed natural assets, cultural, social and manufacturing. Crucially he picked out history and heritage and stressed the rebel history of the place. Now lets be clear, that’s not Wedmore we’re talking about, that’s Bridgwater. From the audience, Phil Shepherd of the Engine Room media centre spotted what he’d said and drew him out on the subject. “How does culture fit into this vision?”. Martins response was clear “Culture is the key to place marketing”. And there you have it. Booming Sedgemoor is booming because of Booming Bridgwater. Now let’s all recognise that.
Don’t By-Pass the Key Issue
But it was Transport Planner Steven Bishop who hit the nail on the head through all this excitement and brought the Conference back to (this) earth. Steve was doing a transport survey which would be reporting shortly and he picked out key factors which everyone (bar EDF and central Government) seems to agree on. Bridgwater needs a Northern By-Pass. Bridgwater instead has got a series of ‘tweaked junctions’ curtesy of EDF. Bridgwater needs trains that actually stop at the station. Bridgwater doesn’t even have an integrated public transport system which connects the station – although EDF does have a sizeable and frequent fleet of often empty busses driving past normal commuters. It was absolutely undeniable that Bridgwater’s key to economic success and any real lasting legacy was a proper transport system that would work for the future. If we wanted to achieve growth we had to support it by facilitating it. People had to get to places. Workers had to get to work. Tourists had to get to tourist spots. It’s no good getting people to the edge of Bridgwater if they daren’t venture INTO it. Ease of communication was the key. Reducing congestion. Dealing with the pinch points. Improving links to Bristol Airport. Getting the trains to stop. Getting the busses to connect with the trains. Making the streets safe and pedestrian friendly. Making shoppers and tourists not just want to visit Bridgwater but to be able to. This would be the true legacy of all this economic excitement.
Bridgwater in the Driving Seat
The Conference was good. It echoed pretty much everything we’d been saying on Bridgwater Town Council and which our allied community groups had fed into us for years. Bridgwater was a special place, has great people and a history and culture to be proud of. Is in a brilliant location. Has great natural assets -and we’ve stressed our waterways -canals, the river, the docks, the sea, the levels. And Bridgwater’s a working class town with a rebellious working class down to earth culture that’s been driving us through the centuries. Let’s work with people who want to work with us and achieve the achievable by recognising the common issues and problems. I think we all know that starts with transport. And the first step in a long march depends on having a road, train or bus to be able to do that on.