Bath is being re-imagined as a city that embraces the river at its heart, while nurturing its creative roots. Christian Annesley asks whether it can fulfil the vision in time to satisfy they city’s growth businesses.
How do you ensure that a city economy continues to develop in the right direction and doesn’t get held up or sidetracked? It’s a question that Bath’s business chiefs and economic development leaders have been contemplating in recent years, and in Bath’s case the answers that have been identified are physical and intellectual, linked to the city’s waterways and its innovative creative thinkers.
First, to the water. It’s more than two years since the city’s leaders began focusing seriously on the river Avon as an underused asset. It led to the creation of an independent working party, the Bath Avon River Corridor Group, to look at ways of making more of the city’s riverside areas, but since then progress has been swift.
Partly that’s because Bath’s newly minted Bath City Riverside Enterprise Area has, as the name suggests, the river as its heart. The area, which is about to start getting the full master planning treatment, is a collection of development sites and buildings along the river corridor, beginning in central Bath and continuing west along Upper and Lower Bristol Roads. In all it covers 96 hectares (a quarter is owned by the council).
Paul Crossely, leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council, says defining the riverside enterprise area is a big step for the city and council, and one that should provide more certainty about the future direction of Bath for everyone’s benefit.
“Bath has suffered from being a bit reactive in its dealings with developers, with decisions usually made on a site-by-site basis. That’s not a good way of working, so it’s fantastic that we will now have a plan to build on and to start to flesh out,” he says.
With certainty about the direction of the city – figuratively and literally – in everyone’s interests, Crossley says developers have been happy to wait to see the plans for the area, even if some sites already effectively contribute to the vision, such as Crest Nicholson’s Bath Riverside development within the identified area. “That’s a successful residential scheme, but this isn’t just about the built environment: it’s about creating high-value jobs and the city fulfilling its economic potential,” adds Crossely.
“Our analysis shows that the area has the potential to create up to 9,000 jobs, 2,500 of which could be created by 2018. The enterprise area has the capacity for 200,000 sq meters of office employment space, focused on supporting growth sectors including the creative industries, professional and financial services and high-tech.”
Which leads to the other part of the vision: one that emphasises the city as a hotbed of high-tech activity and innovation, powered by the universities and innovation clusters and by the strong tech businesses that already call it home. Furthermore with an estimated 3,200 businesses, Bath is a leader when measured in terms of creative enterprises per capita, with the creative sector in Bath contributing to a tenth of the city’s economic output and employing 6,700 people in mostly high-value jobs.
Sammy Mansourpour, co-founder of the marketing specialist AgencyUK, is part of that creative scene and says it makes sense to put it at the centre of Bath’s future narrative.
“Bath is developing a strong creative sector that’s often high-tech and digitally focused, and that’s clearly something worth nurturing,” he says. “Many creatives are attracted to the city as a place of opportunity and collaboration, and the more we can build on the city’s growing status as a magnet for talent the more will come. Potentially it’s a virtuous circle – and it’s realistic because the world is getting smaller all the time.
Mansourpour adds: “The pull of London to creatives isn’t what it was, and Bath is well-placed for serving clients anywhere in the world. That’s what we are already doing at TheAgency, and it doesn’t mean we have to spend our working lives int he capital, even if we have lots of good clients there.”
The vision for Bath is also being explored through a working group which Mansourpour is part of, initiated at the behest of the West of England local Enterprise Partnership, called Bath Bridge. It is busy defining a clear long-term vision for the city and its businesses. More detail is expected soon.
But what happens if we briefly set aside the big vision for Bath?How is it working today for the city’s strongest businesses?
“You cannot get away from it,” says Andrew Sandiford, partner at the Bath office of accountancy firm Bishop Fleming. “Bath has a dire lack of modern office developments for growing businesses. The city is great at producing and nurturing inventive new businesses, and the entrepreneurs behind those businesses want to stay in the city. But once their business takes off, their success becomes a problem.”
As if to illustrate the point, Peter Gradwell, founder of the fast growing internet communications business Gradwell, says he felt the pain of trying to find a home int he city centre that could meet the company’s medium-term needs. “We have 70-off staff and wanted somewhere to grow into, meaning we were looking at our options for 8,000 sg ft. If you want some parking to boot, the list of options in Bath is very short.”
The business did find a home in the heart of the city – it moved into a 7,700 sq ft premises at Westpoint on James St West in july – but it had to make all the running, resolving parking issues on its own terms and paying full business rates, when Gradwell had hoped for more incentives and support.
“That’s just the way it is. Enterprise zones like Bristol’s at Temple Meads have reduced business rates built in, but there’s nothing equivalent here for the city’s businesses to feed off. We’ve managed to stay here, and are feeling the benefit of our new home, but others might have walked. It is definitely something for the authorities to look at carefully,” says Gradwell.
Lovehoney, another fast-growing business in Bath, also wants to see more joined-up thinking across the public sector and with the city’s business communities. The adult goods e-commerce company has increased its workforce to 100 staff in just a few years.
Co-founder Richard Longhurst says Bath has worked well as a location, but the business never felt part of the city’s vision or planning. “There was a 2012 documentary broadcast about Lovehoney and the next day we had two council officials on our doorstep wanting to explore whether we needed a sex shop license, which I found quite bizarre. We have had approaches from the economic development team, too, but we’d like a more grown-up approach to supporting us.”
The business has benefited from plugging into the software developer community in the city, through networking groups such as BathSPARK, even though it finds it usually has to go further afield to recruit.
“Bath is an attractive city for people to come to, and it’s well-connected to the likes of Bristol and Chippenham, so it definitely works for us, “says Longhurst. “We like being here and we want to feel like we are part of the wider business community too.”