My theme as president is going to be geography, scale and our place in the world. I took that decision when I was interviewed for the position three years ago and it seems to have been quite prophetic given what’s happened with Brexit, the Combined Authority and Midlands Engine.
We now have a very different role in the world outside Europe. If you look on a world map you may get four UK cities – London, Edinburgh and Belfast, and possibly that other B-word, Birmingham. So we have to look at the best asset the Midlands has to sell to the world. Fortunately, whether you like it or not, it’s the ‘Birmingham’ word itself.
That does not mean that Coventry, Wolverhampton or Dudley, or wherever, are less important than Birmingham, but we need to understand that what people buy on a world stage is a place.
What would be really good would be to get people from around the world saying how good we are and stating the Birmingham city region is the place to do business. And getting the city’s name out there is even more important post-Brexit.
It’s increasingly important connecting ourselves to the world. It’s not just about the airport, it’s about connectivity and promoting Birmingham as the great place to do business. The bigger the conglomeration the greater the success is likely to be. There will be people whose feathers will get ruffled about the B-word. But there is now a great opportunity for Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country Chambers to work together.
The West Midlands Combined Authority will bring all of this together. Some people may argue that there’s no accountability in this new authority. However, while business pays an enormous amount of tax it doesn’t get one vote. Rate payers do, so representation and taxation tax should go together and business should work with the authority to make sure its voice is heard and understood.
Government-supported infrastructure projects unlock billions of pounds from the private sector. Great schools and the hospitals come out of the economy. Part of this is getting the councillors and an elected mayor to recognise the importance of our place. I’ve got two years to make sure we work in harmony with Coventry, the Black Country and the West Midlands Combined Authority to get things really going and ensure we leave our successors a great legacy.
We have got to get the message clear so that politicians in London take us seriously. Marketing Birmingham focuses on helping more foreign investment, so that’s going to leave space for the Chambers to come in with business support and massive lobbying. Marketing Birmingham and the Chambers can work together for the region.
If we believe we are a world-class city region we need world-class infrastructure, world-class education, world-class skills. But we will have a productivity gap of £80bn by 2030 and we should not be accepting that as the norm. We are only going to improve that by getting companies and industry and business generally to reduce that gap.
During my term of office, HS2 should be underway and we need to make sure that the connections are absolutely first class and make our two new stations – Curzon Street and the Interchange as they are currently called – work.
We can’t afford to cut corners. For instance, if we don’t invest in the airport and build on global connectivity, Manchester and London will grab it.
The Chamber’s role in all of this is key to success because no-one else is going to lobby as powerfully on behalf of business. The Chamber has many members with very different needs and wants.
But the one thing that binds them together is economic success, and the Chamber can articulate that. We need to say: “We are your voice and we are going to speak out loud until you tell us to shut up.” That voice needs to be region-wide.
We all need to get on board with Sir John Peace, chair of the Midlands Engine. And we need to push ourselves to get involved – not wait to be approached.
It is also vital that we get the right person as elected mayor. And, importantly, an elected mayor will be able to say that he or she has the mandate from the whole of the West Midlands – not just Solihull or Burton. We need someone who is charismatic and driven.