Liberal Democrat Candidate for WMCA Mayor
Every year over the past twenty years I’ve heard business complain about operating in the ‘overlooked Middle’.
Devo 1 whilst a first step comes at a high price - local authorities are to balance their books through c£4bn further cuts a year with the withdrawal of the block grant safety net in 2020 in return for some devolved powers and £36.5m annual revenues for 30 years.
Without the necessary political clout we have been starved of infrastructure, talent, housing, investment in science and technology, education for enterprise and frankly the capacity to grow and take on the world. If we are serious about international trade it is our agile, innovative and ambitious SMEs that need to be incentivised to lead the way.
We need investment not cuts. We must now raise our business voice to ensure we're recognised for the full contribution we make. Keeping quiet is not an option. The Chambers should champion well directed new resources for the region. We all know £36.5million is not enough.
The governing South East speaks of an ‘output gap’ but they fail to encourage investment in new means of production - in fact they encourage local government to penalise such enterprises by increasing business rates; they fail to mention the £8 trillion (CBI, 2014) that skills underperformance is costing by denying SMEs the enthusiastic and work ready skilled young people they so desperately need; they fail to mention the £3bn annual cost of road and rail congestion hitting productivity and even though 60% of all rail freight and over a third of all road freight moves through the WM we only secured 14% of London’s investment per head in transport last year.
But who is talking about developing our mixed manufacturing economy representing 38% of regional GDP? A sector that actually creates jobs in significant numbers - serious jobs that don’t depend on some artificial hub for their existence.
What we need is to see is business support aimed at creating manufacturing clusters and supply chains that enable our high tech engineering and craft-skills to prosper and as they do, encourage young people out there to get involved in making things. I see a key role for Chambers in this with Chamber members gaining preferential terms for grants and business support, especially where they play their role in supporting cluster growth, and bring together cooperative clusters through a combined Chamber for Business Growth seeking to marry together partners.
We need a regional development bank staffed by local people who understand on a personal basis local business and what the WM economy is really all about: designing and making the things the world wants to buy. Our current commercial banking system must address the gaps in financing for local SME’s. We need to increase the provision of sub £2 million loans and introduce more patient capital and funds for alternative financing.
We need a regulatory enforcement regime that is based on true risk assessments recommended by the Better Regulation Task Force, not an absolutist approach implemented by non-practitioners. Progress has been made, but there are still too many instances of a ‘prosecute first’ mentality amongst our Trading Standards representatives.
Yes, we need far more investment in integrated infrastructures, including Birmingham Airport expansion which is a top priority to ensure we attract key investment and power growth through exports. Infrastructure should be an asset not a weakness given our position. But let's not waste our money on nationalising the M6 Toll. A more practical route is to free up the arteries by creating a balanced and inclusive transport system whilst accelerating the development of links between M54 and M6 Toll and M6 North to make the M6 Toll more compelling for freight.
We need to incentivise academic careers to become more interdependent on business success with perhaps 20% of staff seconded from business, along with member firms working with schools and universities being given preference for grants and reduced rates and augmented apprenticeship grants for employers employing between 50-249 people.
We need to help our SMEs to thrive and grow - from micro to small, small to medium and medium to large. If elected West Midlands Mayor I pledge that this group of businesses will be my top priority. Investment will be aimed first and foremost at supporting our own business growth.
On the 4th May 2017 voters across the West Midlands Combined Authority area will head to the polls to elect the region’s first ever Mayor. The Mayor will have a vital role to play in shaping strategy, enhancing the region’s reputation and championing local businesses and communities on a national and international stage.
Ahead of these elections the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce are working in partnership with the Black Country Chamber of Commerce and Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce to engage the business community and make sure the business voice is heard. During December we will be featuring introductory articles from each of the confirmed WMCA Mayor Candidates on our website and in our December & January edition of ChamberLink Magazine.
You can find out more about the West Midlands Combined Authority through our briefing paper (click here) or visiting the WMCA website (click here).