"As someone who has long been keen to invest further in Swansea I know from experience how difficult it can be to bring such transactions to fruition."
Simon Williams, Managing Director of Storage Giant
Simon Williams, the Managing Director of Storage Giant, which has nine sites across the UK, with five in Wales, including one in Swansea’s Enterprise Park, says those at the helm of Swansea’s regeneration must grasp this once in a generation opportunity to make small business a key, long-term focus of its plans – and, in doing so, to future-proof the city’s economy.
And, he says, the Welsh Government must do its part to help, not hinder, sensible development that would create employment and local prosperity and would send out a clear message that South West Wales welcomes entrepreneurs.
Simon says: “As someone who has long been keen to invest further in Swansea I know from experience how difficult it can be to bring such transactions to fruition. I have been looking seriously since 2012 to make further significant investment in Swansea – including a site at Fabian Way that had the potential to create hundreds of jobs for people from Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot.
“Our original offer for the Fabian Way site was accepted by the WAG, but the transaction didn’t go ahead because of red tape and delays. In fact, the Welsh Government is sitting on a lot of land and buildings both in Swansea and elsewhere, like Nantgarw, which could have been developed years ago for the good of the local economy.
“I have now been prompted to cast my net wider, looking for other potential sites in Bridgend and Merthyr, and further afield in Birmingham and Swindon. As we speak Storage Giant is developing a major site in Bristol and we have three more in the pipeline beyond South Wales. I won’t be the only business investor who has gone elsewhere because of sluggish bureaucracy within Government agencies and the problem of developers sitting on tracts of land long-term, in the expectation of the value of the land increasing.
“Although Storage Giant is one of the largest operators in the UK, we are still a relatively small business in comparison to other large players and therefore require support in certain forms. This is usually by way of assistance with locating suitable sites and/or buildings for development.
“Many don’t realise that businesses like ours are significant incubators of other small businesses who use our facilitates to maintain logistical freedom with their start up or small business. Facilities like ours remove some of the financial pressures from entrepreneurs, prompting start-ups to take the leap into business that they might otherwise not have taken because of onerous long-term leases, and prohibitively high rent and rates.
“The freedom we offer entrepreneurs simply didn’t exist before firms like Storage Giant focused on commercial customers. We have had this focus from the start of the business, back in 2007, before the financial crisis hit, and we have maintained this same focus – always providing support for small business owners and start-ups at every location we open.
“The site on Fabian Way would have been a good option for my business and it would have been ideal for the start ups we could support within the site. Instead, it has been a real challenge to locate buildings and/or land. I certainly don’t like to be critical of the Welsh Government, but much more could have been done to free up available land for companies such as ours who have been ready to invest large sums especially through a period when employment generation is needed.
“Having said this, I run centres across the country, so I have a lot of experience with planning departments, and I feel that Swansea Council planners have grasped the nettle. They have understood that unnecessary delays undermine the regeneration of the city as a whole. We feel that Swansea Council is more supportive than some other councils around the UK.
“But there is a chance for a wholesale shift in thinking now – a redrafting of the rule-book. Small business is the lifeblood of the Welsh economy – According to Welsh Government figures, of the 238,200 firms operating in Wales, 99.3 percent are classified as small and medium-sized businesses.
“Everything that can be done must be done to support entrepreneurs to set up in Swansea and to stay here once their business begins to grow. So, making sure start ups have access to credible long-term support and an active network of business services, giving those who run small businesses a variety of residential accommodation options within the city centre, strong transport links, looking again at business rates so the playing field between physical business and online firms can be leveled, and working to attract far more non retail, will help.
“A report published last month by the think tank Centre for Cities* clearly showed that successful city centres have more than three times more office than retail space. Much work needs to be done to make Swansea city centre a viable option for professional services, legal, IT and tech firms, by offering quality, flexible office space in an easy-to-use city.”