SOUTHAMPTON has a unique chance to become a “thriving destination port city” thanks to a host of big developments, its City of Culture bid and the Solent Freeport project.

That was the message from an online event which brought together some of the city’s top decision makers.

Southampton Chamber of Commerce and professional services firm PwC hosted the meeting in the wake of the Demos-PwC Good Growth for Cities report.

The report ranked Southampton as the UK’s number three when wellbeing was taken into account alongside economic growth. However, it also found the city was likely to recover more slowly from the Covid crisis than other places.

Julian Gray, senior partner at PwC in Southampton and co-host of the event, said: “I sense a real buzz in the area.”

He pointed to plans for a fifth cruise terminal, the Fawley Waterside redevelopment, the City of Culture 2025 bid, the Mayflower Quarter development and the proposed extension of Southampton Airport’s runway, as well as the chancellor’s recent go-ahead for the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP) freeport bid.

“I think that’s a potential game changer for the region. We have a lot to be proud of and a lot to do but if there’s one thing the pandemic has shown us, it’s that to make a real difference we need to collaborate,” he said.

Good Growth Index puts Southampton third – but pandemic recovery may be slower

Sandy Hopkins, chief executive of Southampton City Council, said the city had challenges but a “massive amount of opportunity”. The bid to be the UK’s City of Culture would “bring lots of benefits” whether or not it was successful, but she added: “I’m pretty confident we’re going to win it.”

“We are a gateway to the world and I think post-Brexit and post-Covid we really do have some tremendous opportunities in the city. We are a diverse, colourful, agile city and we work tremendously well as a system and I think there’s tremendous potential beyond today to work even better as a system of public, private and voluntary sector,” she added.

Solent Freeport scheme 'will be game changer for Southampton'

Alastair Welch, port director at ABP in Southampton, told of its importance as Europe’s biggest cruise turnaround port and the UK’s second biggest container port for imports. Around £40billion of manufactured goods are exported via the city each year, around 90 per cent of them to places outside the European Union.

“We really are the UK’s trading artery with the rest of the world,” he said.

He said the port would complete a £150million capital spend this year – and spoke of the long-term potential to move some of its vehicle trade across the water, in consultation with New Forest District Council and the National Park Authority.

Explained: What does £2bn Solent freeport plan mean for Hampshire?

Karen Stanton, vice-chancellor of Solent University, addressed the need to improve skills and apprenticeship take-ups, which would boost growth and social mobility.

“In addition, Southampton and the region also has an issue in retaining its graduates who study at the four universities in Hampshire, retaining only 36pc of its graduate population,” she said.

Peter Taylor, chairman of Southampton Chamber and managing partner at law firm Paris Smith, told guests: “We have a moment in time to develop a thriving destination port city. The world moves at a rapid pace and we must not miss our chance. What the last year has brought into stark focus is that to achieve great outcomes requires a collective effort to achieve strong results.

“Southampton, as you have rightly said, has a strategic role to play in the region and nationally. We should embrace the responsibilities which come with the privilege of having such a role and I hope that you will feel inspired to get involved. Indeed, I believe that we have a moral obligation to add value to the city, to those who live and work here both now and in the future. They depend upon the city and its economy for their livelihoods, their health and their wellbeing.”