e were delighted to sponsor the recent ACE-led workshop, Driving Interconnectivity across the Midlands which aimed to make tangible strides for housing, transport, procurement and the environment in the region. In attendance were ACE members with an interest in the Midlands, as well as Midlands Connect (the group which brings together local authorities and local enterprise partnerships from across the Midlands) and supply chain clients.
It’s clear there is a huge opportunity for the region. HS2 will link the region to London and the North West. This will bring about new opportunities for economic activity and housing. Furthermore, if the region can make the most of this new North/South connectivity with a subsequent increase in East/West connectivity, then the entire region will be able to benefit. While the vision of leveraging HS2 to benefit all of the Midlands is compelling, the reality is that we’re still a long way away from this happening.
My first observation is on the “inter-connectedness” of the topics discussed. Transport, housing procurement and the environment all have direct and indirect impacts on each other – the way the discussions panned out on the day has only reinforced my feelings on this. It’s always been clear to Geo-Environmental Services Limited (GESL) that only a holistic strategy will ensure a true step-change in connectivity in the Midlands.
The discussions brought out some themes which crossed the topics – the role of SMEs, barriers to smart procurement, and the importance of data – and it’s clear that these are all important factors for the Midlands to consider if we are to collectively unlock its true potential.
While SMEs were identified as being a key driver of innovation, disruptors ready to try new things, natural collaborators, and close to issues such as the local environment, they were also seen as too small to viably compete with larger consultancy firms and are hindered by preconceived notions around their size. It’s clear that councils could lead the way on this issue through enlightened procurement practices.
Indeed, there were a number of further barriers to “smart” procurement highlighted throughout the day, notably moving away from the “cheapest is best” approach. It was felt that councils don’t currently necessarily have the expertise to work in this way and that we needed to move to a place where the true value of an engineer was understood thorough education and better communication. Furthermore, a number of practical suggestions were put forward by the group around the procurement process which might make things simpler for ACE members, especially for SMEs.
My final point revolves around the collection and use of data. Much has been said of the value of data for planning, construction and infrastructure. Questions around whether councils in the region understand this and actually have the raw data on, for example, brownfield sites which are suitable for development. It was generally felt that councils were not sharing as much of the data as they could and that we should be striving for an “open data” policy, following the lead taken by central government.
These are all key take-aways for the sector in the Midlands. From our perspective, we were delighted to work with ACE and it’s not often that the entire supply chain is in the same room. We were also delighted to build new relationships and foster new connections. The workshop clearly proved that we’re only going to deliver a more inter-connected Midlands, if the entire sector is more inter-connected with itself.
Mike Brown is Commercial Director at Geo-Environmental Services Limited (GESL).