Q: Do you think foreign investors in more supply chain-dependent sectors, advanced manufacturing for example, should be hesitant when looking at the West Midlands right now, considering Brexit?
A: Of course, there’s a little hesitation over Brexit, we understand that. But the reassurance is very straightforward: whatever the political structure, whatever the trading arrangements, the tech sector doesn’t hang on to those things. That’s changing globally, irrespective of whats going on in the House of Commons. And our economic strategy is about being in those cutting-edge sectors.
The message from the West Midlands has been absolutely clear all the way though: a deal needs to be struck as quickly as possible and we need to be able to continue to trade broadly as we have done over recent years. Most certainly, we do need [access] to the core European market.
The UK needs to position itself more in research and development [R&D] over the next five years because clearly there will be some challenges from the manufacturing sector. We see a little bit of protectionism across the globe. However, the UK has got the strongest proposition around R&D and a number of our sectors, and this is where the West Midlands will perform very well.
Q: What distinguishes your economic strategy from other mayors across the UK?
A: I’m the mayor of the West Midlands, not Birmingham. So when you look at the FDI stats, we don’t have a stat there about FDI for Birmingham, we don’t have an FDI stat there for a Coventry, we work together as a region. So what’s different? First is that we have stuck to a strategy for a good number of years now. If you look at the past five years of growth in the West Midlands [it's] 22% – the best in the country. That has come from consistency and the business mind rather than a politician’s mind, and understand how to compete in the market.
The second thing has been a question of teamwork. Each of our [agencies] know which sectors in we are trying to develop skills [and investment]. Teamwork made HS2 [the high speed railway project linking London to Birmingham and north and north-west England] happen and that has driven a lot of decisions. If you ask HSBC [which recently opened its new HQ in Birmingham in a £200m investment] why they have made their decision [it's about connectivity].
Q: The West Midlands has grown very fast over the past 10 years; will it plateau soon?
A: We have to be the best in the things we choose to lead in. Take our advanced manufacturing sector; it doesn't matter if we’re not London, we have got the best competitive proposition for global capital [to invest] in that sector.
Do I think we are going to plateau? Absolutely no way, I think we are only just seeing the momentum going and I’ll tell you why I am absolutely sure about that. If you look at the human decisions, this is where you get the real clue to the future potential. If you rank cities from where young Londoners relocate to, they relocate to Birmingham more than anywhere else and only Birmingham has a net positive flow.
Q: In what sectors would you like to see more FDI this year?
A: The West Midlands professional services sector is very successful and more people are employed in that than in manufacturing. And the real thing we should draw out there is the full service sector. So the legal sector is very strong there as well as insurance and banking. Just think about the HSBC story.
But the one I would pull out as the hidden success for us is the clean growth and new energy sector; 12,000 firms in the West Midlands in that sector, the highest productivity of anything and obviously the most rapidly growing area. You want to talk about artificial intelligence), you want to talk about virtual – but we have a lot of people employed in AI already and quite an organic way, actually. So in the new leading areas, we’ve got a real strength.