Q: It’s always a little bit difficult with overlapping investment promotion efforts and there is always a debate about whether it’s best to focus on cities or city-regions or broader regions. How do you see that?
A: It’s very interesting because if you are an employer, you don’t see that. You don’t care about east Midlands, west Midlands, county borders. You really want a consistent workforce, people with the skills that are easy to work with – which is increasingly why there are certain elements that require long-term planning. I think the Midlands Engine can do that very effectively.
Q: The fact that High Speed 2 [the planned high-speed railway linking London, Birmingham, the east Midlands, Leeds and Manchester] is going ahead must be a big boost to your efforts?
A: It’s very important, because it isn’t just about the north-south, it’s about the east and the west as locations. And it’s not just about speed, it’s about capacity, so more people are travelling on our trains. But also capacity not just in travel times from Birmingham to London, but from Birmingham to Nottingham.
Social mobility is something that is quite useful and is focused on quite a lot in speeches and so on, and I think [for] young people in particular, if we can make it easier for them to get around the Midlands (for work and other opportunities), then that has got to be a plus for the region in the long term.
Q: Do you think the Midlands was squeezed out by the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ obsession of the previous UK government?
A: I don’t know. What I would say is the Midlands Engine is not about competing with London, it’s about competing with Shanghai and Singapore. It’s about being competitive in a global marketplace. I actually think we should collaborate with different parts of the country, whether it’s with Wales or London. We are all the UK. One size doesn’t fit all, so by having a regional strategy, you really can adapt it to each region [by] focusing on those things, manufacturing for example, which you know with regards to the Midlands, they are very good at.
Q: We have to bring up the ‘B’ word. How does Brexit affect the message that you are trying to get across to investors? Are you getting questions about that?
A: Well, I am getting some questions about Brexit. It certainly accelerates the need for market growth. We are not abandoning European markets, they are very important. I hope we get the roadmap sooner rather than later. But of course, there are new opportunities: India, China. Last week you saw we had the Commonwealth trade ministers here for a couple of days. So a question of choosing the EU or other parts of the world – hopefully, what I would like to do is find an agreement where we can have the best of both.
Q: The Midlands has an important automotive sector that is really interested about exports. What impact do you expect?
A: Well, it’s very important. If you look at JLR [Jaguar Land Rover] here for example, exports to the EU are very important. Equally, exports from Germany to the UK are also important. So it’s very hard to discern what the circumstances really are.
One of the things about the engine [is that] by having the business element involved, we can get a much better feel for what they need to drive the economy, to create jobs. Over the coming months it will become clearer just what exactly it is that we can and can’t do. You know, our biggest trading partner is Germany, the second one is the US and the third one is France. So while I think China, India and sub-saharan Africa are great opportunities, I do not want to turn my back on those three.
We are working very closely with the Department of Trade and Industry. We have to raise the bar in reaching out to existing markets and new markets, and that means getting businesses more involved in these negotiations. One of the things I want from the government is some clarity of how it’s all going to work. Because at the moment, the debate is on, what are we going to be able to do with Germany and the rest of Europe going forward?