Bath: Software City?

Bath. Well known for this kind of thing:

Not, however, so well known for this kind of thing:

PC

While the professional, scientific and technical, and information and communications, industries make up 13% of Bath’s workforce, they contribute 27% of the total gross-value-added (GVA) contributions (see page 24 of BANES’s Economic Strategy publication). The future of this area was the subject of a talk at the Octagon, Bath as part of the Treasure & Transform exhibition. The Chimp was in attendance (any factual errors in the reportage are my own, for which I and my hastily iPhone-typed notes apologise).

The Panel

The talk was in the form of a panel discussion chaired by Simon Bond, Director of Bath Ventures Innovation Centre (University of Bath). The panel featured the cream of Bath’s software industry: Paul Kane, CEO of CommunityDNS, Richard Godfrey, Director and Founder of i-Principles and Shaun Davey, CEO of IPL.

What Makes Bath Good for Software?

First up was a discussion of the attributes that make Bath attractive for software and high-tech companies. This included:

  • Excellent local universities (e.g. Bath & Bath Spa) providing a stream of talented people.
  • Great quality of life, especially for families.
  • Unique concentration of creative skills, e.g. in publishing, design and the arts.
  • A culture of quality, of building things well.
  • A good (if not affordable) transport link into London.
  • A concentration of affluent people, e.g. for investment.

What Difficulties do Businesses in Bath Face?

Next, the talk moved on to the difficulties faced by software and high-tech companies in Bath. These included:

  • Transport problems; e.g. high cost of train travel, difficulty getting into the center of the city; unpredictabiltiy of traffic; congestion and pollution.
  • Lack of office space suitable for software firms. Many offices were converted houses which were not suitable for the kind of open plan offices needed to allow productive brainstorming and idea sharing.
  • Communications infrastructure: outside of Bath University’s JANET link high-bandwidth connections were rare (although we were told BT are looking to install fibre in Kingsmead, mainly for residential customers). Also poor wi-fi (and 3G) coverage.
  • Cost of housing (I wholeheartedly agree with this one!): this prices out talented young people, e.g. between 18 and 40; who find other areas more affordable.

How Can Bath Improve?

Having looked at the difficulties, ways in which Bath could improve its position were discussed:

  • Stop non-city-centre traffic from needing to pass through the city centre (this would need lobbying of the Highways Agency on a national level).
  • Lobby BT/Virgin to upgrade communications infrastructure. Innovative ideas such as laying fibre along the river/canal tow-path or in existing drains and/or providing wi-fi from the hills were put forward.
  • Develop world-class conference venues. International conferences were a great way for Bath to attract talented people and become a thought leader (this was thanks to Muir Macdonald, MD of BMT Defence Services).
  • Continue the recent co-operation between the public and private sectors; consultations were always welcomed.
  • Use SMEs in Bath for local services; there are many companies in Bath that outsource services to London-based firms when local equivalents exist.
  • Increase promotion of high-tech industires in Bath. High-tech industry has often been the poor relation to the tourism industry when it comes to press coverage and marketing, which needs to change.

My Two Cents

Comparisons were made with Old Street (so-called “Silicon Roundabout”) and Cambridge (so-called “Silicon Fen”). I have worked in (and with) software and high-tech comapnies in both these locations. Bath can learn certain lessons from these areas:

  • Bath needs more innovation centres. The current Innovation Centre is at capacity and the awkward location in the bow of the river in the city centre is not great for commuting. BANES has earmarked the Bath City Riverside (where I will soon live) as sites with potential for development. These industrial areas on the edge of the city (Twerton / Newbridge), with easy road access, would make ideal (and cheap) sites for incubation centres that would solve the office space problems discussed above. Cambridge have recently opened their Hauser Forum in a similar edge-of-city location, which complements sites such as St Johns Innovation Centre (where I have worked). These buidling provide more than office space, they enable like-minded talented young people to mingle and connect, building a network effect that results in real growth and GVA.
  • The panel discussed attracting highly-educated, young 18-30-somethings to Bath to work in the high-tech industries. It was amusing listening to the ideas put forward, because the Chimp falls exactly within that demographic. For the Chimp the greatest difficulty coming to Bath is a lack of affordable family housing; if you were employed in Bath on a good yet (business-wise) affordable salary you would not be able to afford any 3-bed property outside of the estates in the south-west of the city. There are more affordable properties outside of Bath, but this means you will need to drive into Bath, and thus face the traffic problems discussed above. Here real brave thought and leadership is required, not only from the public sector, but from the more conservative and outspoken Bath public who often put a blanket ban on talk of development.

Summary

I will leave you with a corruption of Paul Kane’s ad-libbed marketing soundbite:

High-tech businesses in Bath thrive.

That they continue to thrive will be down to a continuation of the brave public-private partnerships and investments exemplified by the Treasure and Transform exhibition and seminars.

Image thanks to electricinca / Flickr

Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

2 thoughts on “Bath: Software City?

  1. An interesting post that expresses much of my own thoughts on Bath – so much goes on here that you just don’t know about. Like the panel mentioned, a showcase campaign that illustrated what the high-tech industry does for Bath, highlighting the big and the small, would do wonders for the sector being both aware of itself and Bath aware of them.

    The family housing question is perhaps the real nut to crack in terms of public policy – how do you build affordable homes and housing for families and young professionals that doesn’t get snapped up by buy-to-let landlords or is priced so highly that it becomes retirement housing for the wealthy.

    As for transport as long as First are involved locally I don’t see anything substantial changing. We have the infrastructure in terms of the rail and bus routes they’re just not appealing nor reliable. I think the park and ride system works very well for Bath, what we could do with is more localised capacity for rail (more trains into and out of Oldfield park for example) and an improved more cost effective bus service.

    1. Thanks for your comment Dan.

      I agree that young professionals and families are often the last in the housing queue after buy-to-let landlords and wealthy retirees. It’s also a national problem that is particularly acute in desriable areas with limited stock (London, Cambridge, Bristol, Bath, Oxford). I think the problem of family housing is particularly difficult to solve. Crest Nicholson are building hundreds of apartments in the new Western Riverside Development, almost half of them “affordable housing”; however, I imagine most of the apartments will be 1 or 2 bedrooms, which are unsuitable for families with young children.

      First will likely not wish to (and may not be able to afford to) substantially invest any more into the local bus networks following the large investment in the new Bath bus station. I personally think that the number of buses is not an issue, more how the existing buses are integrated and managed. A first step would be a bus tracking system, similar to those found in many UK towns, to make it easier for the public to catch buses. Greater co-ordination between the mostly separate park-and-ride, First, and university buses, at least from the public’s point of view would also help.

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