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Ian Mean speaks to departing Western Gateway Chair Katherine Bennett about her achievements in role

1 March 2024
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Western Gateway is a pan-regional partnership for South Wales and Western England (pictured is Swansea)
Western Gateway is a pan-regional partnership for South Wales and Western England (pictured is Swansea)

As the first Chair of the Western Gateway, the new pan-regional partnership stretching from Swindon to Swansea, Katherine Bennett CBE has faced a big challenge.

And as she steps down as Chair, Ian Mean, Gloucestershire director of Business West and former editor of the Western Daily Press, talks to her about a hectic two years in the role.

I believe that the Western Gateway is now a very credible business-supporting organisation, which is tackling some big ticket issues with the development of strategies on the rail network, hydrogen power and harnessing tidal power to name just a few.

She was eminently qualified for the role as CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult following a 16 year career at Airbus, including as Senior Vice President leading the company’s external engagement and strategy in the UK.

Now, entering its third year of government funding, the initial financial support for Western Gateway came from councils and business organisations spanning the two countries who continue to support the partnership.

It remains unique and innovative.

“From the very start”, says Katherine, ”The kernel of an idea for the organisation was from the area-it was not imposed on us.”

I, like many in the business community, were at the start sceptical about the influence of an organisation stretching between two countries-particularly into the councils of South Wales.

But it has grown in stature since its launch in 2022, and I think its influence is very much down to good, inclusive leadership from Katherine backed by a strong team.

“I think one of the reasons the partnership came about was that we needed more hope-more cohesion”, Katherine told me.

“We were the first pan-border partnership so there were particular dynamics there in terms of the Welsh side of the border.

“Geography is one thing but economic social mobility is another. So, with people going across different sides of the river to go to work the river running through our region is actually the lifeblood of our area.

“I very much saw myself and other members of the board as ambassadors for the region, and that is something I pledge to continue doing if they need me to.

“I feel it is very important that business people step up and do that too, which is perhaps what has been lacking before.

“There are very strong voices in certain businesses but we also wanted to get other businesses to take their role as well.

“The Cardiff and Swansea City deals do that too but it was just making a bigger voice on a slightly bigger geographic stage as well as our ambition. I hope I have helped with that.

“But there is definitely more to be done. We need to turn up the volume another notch and ensure our voice is heard just as much as some of the other voices nationally.”

Is she confident that the Western Gateway will survive whatever government is in power after the General Election?

“I will never make a cast iron guarantee but we took heart should the Labour Party win the election from the recent review led by Gordon Brown where Western Gateway got several mentions and was seen as a good example of cross regional partnership.

“I don’t think any new administration would throw the baby out with the bath water.

“Who knows? It does work quite well and they might decide to cut the cloth slightly differently, but I can’t imagine that would be a mega priority for any new administration.

“The Western Gateway is very much a bottom up organisation so I think it would be a risky strategy to dismantle that immediately.”

How many marks would she give herself out of ten for her tenure?

“Seven—I am a glass half full type of person.

It is kind of you to ask me that question but I cannot take that seven as just me-I absolutely couldn’t do it without the team around me.”

What’s the best advice she could pass on to her successor?

“You must listen well and frame the conversation well , and be on top of your brief.

“You can’t boil the ocean with projects like this.

It is very important to focus on certain things for the common good that you can make a difference to.

“I don’t wish to blow my own trumpet but the partnership should blow its own trumpet because it has been amazing since we were created with the ideas that people have come to us with. People are now knocking on our door and asking to join us.”

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Stephen Emerson is the Managing Editor of The Business Magazine and is responsible for the publication's print publications and online properties including the newly launched Biz News websites in Hampshire and Dorset.

Stephen has been a journalist for 20 years and has worked at local, regional and national publications and led a team which made The Scotsman website one of the fastest growing news sites in the UK with over eight million monthly users.

He has a keen interest in technology, property and corporate finance and telling the stories of the people behind the successful firms in these sectors.

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