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Providing the means for regions to trade internationally

With any luck, new mayors will be known by their first names—just like Boris and Sadiq are

By Stephen Ibbotson  

This article was produced in association with ICAEW

Around the world, many important and influential businesspeople know who Boris is. They know who Ken is, too. And they are already learning about Sadiq.

That’s because as Mayors of London, Messrs Johnson, Livingstone and Khan have all, in one way or another, played a role in raising the profile of our capital city on the world stage.

This has been done to boost the city’s exports—services more than goods—and to attract inward investment into one of the world’s great cities.

Imagine the day when Andy or Siôn are as internationally known as Boris and Ken. That will be the day when London’s rivals in the global business landscape include Greater Birmingham. And Manchester. And Liverpool. And Sheffield.

Andy Street, until recently managing director of the John Lewis Partnership, is the Conservative Party candidate to become the first elected Mayor of the West Midlands. His main rival is Siôn Simon, a Labour MEP and former Westminster politician.

Whichever of the candidates emerges as winner of the contest next May—it will almost certainly be one of the two—the task of establishing the West Midlands as an internationally known brand will be their first and toughest task.

Yet this is seen as essential by ICAEW chartered accountants, who advise businesses in the area on a daily basis. Members in other city regions believe the same is required of their mayors.

Mr Simon has already acknowledged the importance of creating a strong identity, complaining that the area suffers from the lack of a “premium global football brand”—a comment that did not go down well with the fans of Birmingham City, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City.

Yet the point he made is important in assessing the task facing the new crop of elected mayors who will be coming to power next year. The most significant of these will be in charge of the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, East Anglia and the West of England.

The winners will be expected to drum up business for their cities or regions. In the past, the sight of municipal leaders jetting off around the world on trade missions has often been dismissed as a freebie or a jolly offering little or no benefit to local taxpayers.

Yet in an era when Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union can make this country look vulnerable in the eyes of international business, promoting their area’s goods and services abroad will be a vital job for elected mayors. And it is a central part of the government’s industrial strategy.

The justification for this new layer of bureaucracy is that devolution will give places outside London a better chance to create their own destinies and take responsibility for their successes or failures.

But the competition will be intense not just between the regions and London but between the regions themselves.

The government’s new Department for International Trade is aligning its activities to the new regions. But within each new Mayoral constituency there can be at least three Local Enterprise Partnerships, half a dozen local authorities and two or three Chambers of Commerce.

All these entities are in the business of promoting international trade and attracting inward investment. Yet they often fail to co-ordinate their activities and tend to vie with one another for the limelight and the kudos.

For example, a year ago, I was one of several people asked to meet the boss of an American IT company to explain the potential benefits of setting up his new business in Birmingham. We had a good discussion and he was fêted by all the great and good of the city, while the local authority pulled out all the stops to demonstrate why it would benefit his business to set up his European headquarters there.

This was, alas, the third such visit he had made. Manchester and Leeds had both already rolled out the red carpet as each city did what it could to persuade him to bring jobs and investment there.

He didn’t like Manchester and he had trouble opening a new business bank account in Birmingham so he chose to go to Leeds.

This may seem a capricious decision but it shows how fierce the rivalry between the different cities can be. This will become even more intense when mayors are elected. They will, for good or ill, become the embodiment of the place they represent on the international stage.

In all probability, the more charismatic the individual, the better. Big cities will need big personalities who are not afraid of talking up their industries and willing to do so all over the world, morning, noon and night.

If the regions are to be revived, the role of the elected mayor in promoting exports, and attracting inward investment, will be vital. It’s not just a question of Leeds stealing a march on Liverpool, or vice-versa. The mayors will have to bang a few heads together.

In every city region, there are too many organisations and agencies promoting international trade. They may talk to their counterparts in Germany or China but they rarely talk to the people in the office over the road who are tasked with doing much the same thing.

Coordination by a mayor representing the whole region will not be easy. These areas all include strong local rivalries. By force of personality, an elected mayor may be able to persuade all parties to work together for a common cause. It won’t be a job for the fainthearted and we may only know if they have succeeded when they are known by their first names alone, like Boris and Ken.


prospect_bbtc_logoOn the 17th of November, Prospect will launch Brexit Britain: the trade challenge. A publication designed to act as a guide for parliamentarians, officials and businesses with a stake in the UK’s changing relationship with the world following Brexit.

If you want to know how different industry sectors are likely to be affected by the coming change and the answer to that all-important question: how do we ensure Britain remains open for business? then pre-order your free copy of the Brexit Britain: the trade challenge.

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