BUSINESS and civic leaders praised the success of Forest firms and discussed the challenges they face at an insightful round table event at the Speech House last week.

Gloucestershire Chamber of Commerce, the county’s strategic business forum and a part of regional partnership Business West, welcomed leaders and members of the Forest’s business community to discuss issues from sustainability and productivity to planning and skills at the ‘Listening to Business’ event on Thursday (November 23). 

Hosted by Director of Gloucestershire Chamber Ian Mean MBE, the event gave local businesses an intimate opportunity to hear from and ask questions of each of the business leaders and experts in a relaxed setting.

First to speak was Councillor Johnathan Lane (Green, Tidenham), who is the Cabinet Member for Economy at the Forest Council and the Vice Chair of the Forest Economic Partnership.

He spoke about the need for sustainable economic growth in the region, where no one is left behind; the Forest’s focus on developing their strong reputation for productivity; and the role planning plays in supporting economic growth and housing.

He said: “I want the Forest to be a place where people and businesses prosper, and where people aren’t left behind so that places and people benefit from this prosperity and from inclusion in the Forest’s Labour Market.”

“The Forest of Dean is a real success story in terms of productivity and this was a huge source of pride for the Forest community. Within the UK productivity has fallen, whereas businesses in the forest have gone and invested in skills, and technologies, which is where a lot of the future productivity gains will come from.”

Next up was Luke Freeman, the Joint Chief Executive of housing developer and contracting firm MF Freeman Group, founding Freeman Homes and later Freeman Retirement Living.

Mr Freeman, who was recently awarded an MBA in Leading Business, with a focus on ESG governance, highlighted MF Freeman’s participation in the Good Growth Partnership for sustainable housing projects.

He explained that MF Freeman Group is committed to helping achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by using them to review business activities and inform its sustainability framework. 

He highlighted some of the challenges in creating affordable housing, and their focus on putting forward good quality with EPC A and B rating within the housing market, with an additional focus on bringing in EV Charging facilities and Solar at the point of construction for new homes in the Forest and surrounding areas.

Despite some changes to the planning sector released in the autumn statement, he also raised concern about the knock-on impact that funding shortfalls in the planning sector will have on the current housing crisis.

Finally, Luke spoke on the topic on skills gaps, and how important it is to develop the next generation to meet increasing housebuilding projects. 

The average age of workers within the construction agency is rising from a base of 49 years old in 2017, with one in every five UK-born construction workers was aged over 55.

The final guest of the event was Warren Thomas, CEO of Gloucestershire Engineering Training (GET).

Mr Thomas highlighted how within Gloucestershire there’s 120,000 people working in the Advanced Engineering Supply Chain and yet also a 60,000 person skills shortage.

GET currently only has one placement for every three applications they receive, having to turn down potential new entrants to the local engineering labour market due to the lack of quality educational environments in which to train students.

Despite this, they were able to invest in opening a new training facility in Cinderford, to support and develop young people into future engineers locally. 

GET Cinderford support skills and commercial training for local employers and staff.

“The Forest of Dean has had nowhere to provide engineering training support for decades, so we [Gloucestershire Engineering Training] wanted to fix this,” Mr Thomas said.

Warren spoke about GET’s efforts to attract more students, especially women interested in STEM for their engineering courses.

To close the event, Emma Carter, Membership Director at Business West, thanked the speakers and summated the evening’s discussions on the need for sustainable growth and the importance of skills and education. 

Emma highlighted ongoing efforts to improve these areas but also recognised the need for further action and collaboration through engagement in initiatives such as the Gloucestershire Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP).

LSIP is a Business West initiative, funded by the Department for Education, to bring together employers, education, and training providers and other local stakeholders.

It aims to set out the key priorities and changes needed in the area to ensure post-16 technical education and training prepares employees better for work. 

For more information about LSIP projects, go to

The event organisers added: “Thank you to everyone who attended the event and sharing your business concerns and questions, we hope you found it worthwhile and went away with new insights and ideas!”