South Kesteven District Council leader Matthew Lee’s full speech to economic business summit

Matthew Lee on economic business summit
Matthew Lee on economic business summit

South Kesteven District Council leader Matthew Lee (Con) announced a string of ambitious plans to an economic business summit on Monday (October 9).

This is his speech in full:

When I gave my first speech as the Leader of South Kesteven District Council in April this year, I had three key themes.

I explained how proud I am to be a resident of this area and how passionate I am about making a positive, lasting difference.

I said that driving our economy is our number one priority and the thing on which I expect to be judged.

And I said that in order to deliver on this commitment, we need to stop talking about change and start delivering it.

Tonight is all about the economy of our district. It is about what we as a Council intend to do to help drive growth and how we can all work together.

***

As the Leader of South Kesteven District Council, my objective is to make our local economy significantly bigger than it is today.

Our economy is currently worth around 2.7 billion pounds per year.

By 2040, through our interventions, we will add a further £1.2 billion pounds to this figure.

That’s an increase of more than 40%. And that’s on top of the impressive growth already forecast for the period.

Today is day one of that journey.

***

Tonight I am setting out a series of new strategic projects across the district that will achieve the first £500 million pounds of this growth target by investing £40 million pounds of council money.

The projects I am about to mention will either be completed, or underway, by 2020.

***

Before I come on to those projects, I would like to make a few points…

I am determined that the benefits of our economic growth should be felt right across the district.

This not only makes good economic sense, but on a more personal level, it is a fundamental part of my beliefs as a Christian.

Whatever faith you may have, or none, I know that you share my determination to drive out unemployment, poverty and social injustice from our District.

The economy is already at the heart of everything my administration does and every decision we make. And I’d like to give you a couple of examples.

SKDC puts on some fantastic festivals.

We do so, not just because of the cultural benefit or because they are great fun, but because they provide a significant boost to our economy.

Take the recent Georgian Festival in Stamford. The Festival took my officers many hours to organise and tens of thousands of pounds to put on.

We’re waiting for the numbers for this year’s Festival, but the last festival in 2015 generated more than £1 million of benefit for the local economy.

That is the multiplier effect – investing a modest amount of council money to generate many times the original investment to the local economy.

To give you another example, you may have heard about our ‘Big Clean’ programme.

Yes, we want to reduce weeds and litter and graffiti across the district – of course we do – and it’s going fantastically well.

But cleaner streets also help sell houses and attract people to come to live, work and invest here.

It says that SKDC cares about the state of our streets – and, by implication, that we care about everything else we do.

***

Now….. As there are lots of business people in this room this evening, I think it’s really important to say that I know the public sector doesn’t build the economy – you do.

But that doesn’t mean that we, your District Council, should be passive and just wish you good luck.

There are lots of things we can do to help you.

We can partner, we can offer advice and we can support. And we can also help de-risk worthwhile projects that would otherwise not happen.

The investments we are proposing to make

using Council money will create assets; assets that can appreciate in value if managed correctly.

Creating assets gives us choices.

In years to come we will be able to decide whether we want to hold on to them or sell them and re-invest that money into other projects.

And, as I say, the right projects can generate many times our original investment for our economy.

In most cases it just needs more commercial thinking and the political will.

And I firmly believe that South Kesteven District Council now has both.

***

You may be wondering how I can announce such a large investment with such confidence, six months on from being appointed as the Leader of the Council.

There are two reasons…

***

Firstly, despite years of talk about austerity, SKDC is in a relatively fortunate financial position, with strong reserves and little borrowing.

We have not found it down the back of the sofa, nor discovered the infamous money tree.

Our strong financial position allows us to do this - and do it comfortably.

We have the money and I believe it is our responsibility to put it to work for our district and not just have it sitting in the bank.

My second reason for confidence is how far we have already come as a Council.

Six months ago, SKDC was an officer-led organisation.

The Council simply lacked the ambition, confidence and drive to make things happen.

All too often the answer to a good idea was a ‘no’ instead of a ‘yes’.

***

Things look very different now.

Today I am the Leader of the Council. We have a new Deputy Leader – Cllr Kelham Cooke. And a new Cabinet.

And as a new political leadership team we have brought in a new Chief Executive – Aidan Rave.

You can already see the change in the council’s officers.

Their self-confidence is returning, they are more empowered and they are beginning to challenge the way we have done things for so long.

The bottom line is that SKDC is becoming an exciting place to work.

***

So.. how are we going to turn all of this into reality? In a word, InvestSK.

Councils can be very difficult beasts for the private sector to engage with.

Over the years, I have heard countless stories of companies bursting with ideas contacting councils, only to be led down an uninspiring path of paperwork, planning and process.

We have therefore formed InvestSK to help you engage with us – and with each other.

They are here to drive investment in our economy – both from within and from outside our borders.

InvestSK wants to know about your needs and your strategies and how they can help.

Instead of reining in your ambitions, they are there to help you accelerate your growth plans - here, in South Kesteven.

Not Peterborough. Not Cambridge. And not London.

Take Tots To Travel, for example.

Wendy Shand and her team are growing rapidly and had assumed that their next step would be outside of Stamford and probably outside the district.

But by working with another great Stamford company, Haatch, they have been able to secure the 22 desks they needed to stay here – and we’re delighted that they have.

But far too many companies are leaving our district because there is no accommodation available.

And at the moment they don’t even ask for our help – they just leave!

I hope you agree that the creation of InvestSK is an excellent way to re-invest income generated from your business rates.

And I can assure you that we will be providing InvestSK with the resources it needs to succeed.

An inward investment body isn’t new and it isn’t radical. But it works… and works well in lots of different districts and counties across the country.

***

Now, I would like to turn to the new projects.

If you’re waiting to hear who the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ are, you may be disappointed.

We haven’t just focused on one town or one issue, but the key issues in each of our four market towns – The Deepings, Bourne, Grantham and Stamford – as well as our 80-plus rural villages.

To do so we have focused on a number of broad economic elements:

Commercial, Arts & heritage,

Leisure & the visitor economy, Retail & markets,

Public realm, Living,

Gateways, Transport,

Skills.

These elements will form the basis of a new ‘Master Planning’ approach to each of our towns.

This approach is not just about the built environment; it will address every one of these elements.

***

So let’s get into the detail - starting with Commercial.

Fundamentally, we want businesses to start up in our district, grow in our district and be able to recruit from our district.

In order to do so, we need to do everything in our power to accommodate the needs of new and growing companies here in South Kesteven.

We know that there is a desperate need for office space for micro and small businesses to grow and for medium-sized companies to move into.

I am pleased to announce that we will be creating facilities in every one of our towns.

***

We will therefore be creating a Digital Hub in Stamford on the site of the former cattlemarket.

The hub will be able to house dozens of companies in a modern, flexible space with at least 300 desks.

We are currently working in partnership with the team at Haatch, who run a smaller incubation facility in Stamford, to bring forward this proposal

What will it look like? Well, we don’t know yet, but it will be an award winning, iconic building and it will be absolutely appropriate for such an important conservation area.

Creating a building that is not just right, but of which we can be proud, will be a shared challenge and we will work with numerous partners to help us get it right, not least the Stamford Civic Society!

In The Deepings, in partnership with Lincolnshire County Council, we are going to create a new office facility of around 10,000 square feet.

To demonstrate the latent demand for these facilities, we are in the final stages of talks with a tenant that wants 50% of this space.

In Grantham, as well as the new cinema, we have announced changes to the St Peter’s Hill area and plans to re-model the our offices to accommodate another 200-desk space for micro-businesses.

As well as providing much-needed space, it also affirms the Council’s commitment to staying in the town and helping maintain much-needed footFall.

In Bourne, we will provide a serviced office facility for micro businesses in the town centre, which will again help support the High Street.

***

Helping businesses grow and create employment requires one thing above all else – land!

We allocate land for employment through our Local Plan, but we have far too much land that is allocated to employment that is not yet being developed.

SKDC will now take a far more proactive approach to ensure we have adequate provision for business development.

If that means we get tough with a land owner that is blocking development, we will.

If that means we need to acquire a site, we will.

And if that means we need to ‘forward fund’ infrastructure, we will.

We will also help with the development of our business and light industrial parks in our rural areas and explore the need for ‘micro business hubs’ in some of our villages.

***

Moving on to arts and heritage.

We are already leveraging the benefits of The Arts and Heritage in our district, but we can do so much more.

As well as the Georgian Festival in Stamford, we have the Gravity Fields science festival in Grantham and the newly established Literary Festival in the Deepings.

Tonight I am committing to continue to grow and invest in each of these.

I have confirmed that Bourne will also have its own festival.

We haven’t decided on a theme yet, but we will work with various partners, including the Town Council, to make sure it’s a great success.

Personally I would would like to have an opportunity to celebrate the town’s superb motor-racing heritage.

As part of the St Peter’s Hill re-development in Grantham, we will also be investing significant sums to improve the facilities and offer at the Guildhall Arts Centre.

***

As you may know, this year Stamford celebrated 50 years since it became, the first conservation area in the country.

Having reflected on the importance of this for the town, I have decided to go a step further.

SKDC will therefore bring forward new planning policy to provide additional protections against abuses, while ensuring it remains a vibrant community and not a ‘museum piece’ or dormitory town.

***

Moving on to leisure and the visitor economy.

Many councils have historically under-rated the value and earning potential of their leisure facilities, seeing them as merely a drain on resources.

And yet memberships of private gyms have never been higher, nor more expensive!

With sufficient investment and commercial focus, councils’ leisure facilities can be a major contributor to the local economy.

They also add greatly to a town’s sense of place and provide a strong attraction for families to move in to, or stay in, the area.

Over the next 3 years we will be investing heavily to provide high-quality leisure facilities across the area.

We will build new leisure facilities in The Deepings and in Stamford.

I am also pleased to confirm that we will be investing in our facilities in Bourne and Grantham to ensure they are of a high standard.

***

We will also be reversing years of shockingly low council in attracting tourists to our district.

We have amazing tourist assets in our area: Burghley House, Easton Walled Gardens, Belton House and Woolsthorpe Manor to name but a few.

We should have been working with you far more than we have done to date.

From now on, we will.

***

I’d now like to turn to our retail offer – starting with our markets.

We have four beautiful market towns in our district. However, while Stamford’s market is thriving, the others are having a tough time.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, market towns need markets, so we need to take action.

We are in the process of producing a new markets strategy and we are already having discussions with existing stall holders about ways to revitalise the offer.

We are looking at the mix and quality of what is on offer by ensuring our local suppliers are well represented and more specialist market stalls can become established.

We will invest in the branding of our markets and make it easier for market stall holders to progress into shops on our High Streets.

***

Turning to our retailers, we all recognise the pressure they are under.

First it was the out-of-town shopping centres, then it was the hypermarkets and now it is online shopping.

It’s not just the small independents that are feeling the pressure; you just need to look at supermarkets rushing to build mini-markets - and the rise of stiff competition from budget chains.

With apologies to Mark Twain, I have to say that “I believe the reports of the death of the high street are greatly exaggerated!”

I’d go as far as to say that the social aspect of a town centre as the heart of our communities has never been more important.

We will be rising to this challenge in a number of ways, from improving the quality of our markets and running promotional events and festivals.

***

Grantham’s fantastic heritage has enormous un-tapped potential.

We will be using this to drive regeneration in the town, starting with the creation of a ‘heritage quarter’ from St Wulfram’s Church to the railway arches on Westgate.

This project will focus on making the centre of Grantham a destination in its own right, helping to boost the visitor and retail economy.

We will bring forward new planning policies to protect and enhance the historic built environment.

I look forward to working with many partners including Grantham Civic Society and Father Stuart from St. Wulfram’s to achieve this.

***

In Bourne we will bringing forward plans to promote ‘town centre living’, bringing families back into the heart of the town to help maintain footfall.

To kick-start this process, tonight I commit SKDC to building new housing accommodation in Bourne, just off the high street .

In addition, we will be improving the quality of public spaces in and around our towns, where we have identified the need to improve the High Street in order to support our retailers.

We very much had Bourne in mind when looking at this policy – but other towns will also benefit.
In Grantham the new relief road will open up new possibilities for pedestrians to reclaim the High Street through widened pavements, more trees, more seating and better car parking.

Housing remains a hot topic nationally and regionally. There simply hasn’t been enough building for years.

Our local plan identifies that around 20,000 more people will be living in our district by the mid-2030s.

Not only is there a need for more housing in our district, but central government is also placing increasing obligations on us to do so.

We believe that, far from being a burden, that managed properly, this growth will be positive, both for existing residents and our economy.

Our approach to housing will be twofold.

Firstly, we will support the private sector to bring forward sites and build housing.

However, where this approach is not working, we will be willing to build homes ourselves – not only for public sale, but to also to increase our supply of council houses.

We will bring forward sites where we can provide the core infrastructure and portion them up into plots that would be ideal for ‘self-builds’ or small local builders.

At the same time, in Bourne, Grantham and Stamford, we will be encouraging the conversion of more over-shop accommodation into flats to maintain footfall and a vibrant evening and night time culture – the ‘town centre living’ I talked about earlier.

***

Turning to what we call ‘gateways’ – those things that determine the first impressions of our towns.

Currently, our towns make very different first impressions!

Stamford impresses from every angle, whether you’re approaching on foot, by car or by rail.

Grantham is a very different story!

First impressions are particularly poor when you approach from the station or via Spitalgate Level or from the North, off the A1. This must change!

We have already started to address the gateways into Grantham through our Big Clean initiative.

In addition, we will improve signage, roundabouts, and the visual aperance of our gateways to make that difference.

First impressions count and we need to give our towns and their centres every opportunity to shine.

***

Our transport links are one of our key benefits.

Many districts would give their right arms for what we take for granted – the A1 and the East Coast Main Line.

The Grantham Southern Relief road is not news. However, I am delighted to report that phase 2 is to begin next summer and the process for tendering Phase 3 will begin after that.

We remain committed to working in partnership with our colleagues at Lincolnshire County Council in support of this important scheme.

Let’s not forget that the delivery of more than 3,500 new homes depends on it.

Road projects don’t get much larger for a district than a major relief road.

However, we must also keep a strategic eye on more minor roads as we grow to ensure we are always considering the ‘big picture’ and not unwittingly creating ‘rat runs’ for drivers.

***

Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to talk about skills.

Skills are not just an issue for our schools and colleges. It matters to all of us as a community.

I am passionate about ensuring our district has ample training opportunities for our young people and it’s one of the things I’ve tasked InvestSK with improving.

This process will begin in the next few months, starting with a skills ‘summit’, where we can start to build a new joint approach between the council, business, and educational establishments.

***

The implications of the plans I’ve just outlined are considerable and they will require a huge degree of effort, commitment and determination from each and every one of us.

But I believe we are at a critical point; and this is the time…

The time for the council to take a clear lead on setting out a new, brighter and more ambitious future for our district…

Time for you – our partners – to recognise the fundamental role you have to make this happen and drive our economy to new and exciting levels of growth…

Time for us to create the opportunities that will enable our young people to have the chance to achieve their dreams - not by having to move to London - but here in their home district.

And above all, time for us to be clear from this point onwards that economic growth is the pre-cursor to social justice and for us to be bold and unapologetic about pursuing both of those noble aims.

I thank you for being here tonight and demonstrating your commitment and I look forward to working with you all to make all of these exciting plans a reality…

Thank you very much.