Chamber gives evidence at BEIS committee
Improved rail services and fairer infrastructure investment in the East Midlands will drive growth, East Midlands Chamber* Director of Policy Chris Hobson told a Business Energy and Industrial Strategy committee at Westminster this morning.
Chris was one of three ‘witnesses’ giving evidence to MPs about regional issues. The others were Anthony May, Chairman, Midlands Engine Operational Board, and Julia Goldsworthy, Director of Strategy, West Midlands Combined Authority.
Subjects tabled by MPs for discussion included:
The impact of Midlands Engine has it been successful, what are businesses views?
Transport priorities for the Midlands
Skills – why there is a lack of skilled workers and whether there should be an overhaul of the education system
Business skills – leadership and mentoring
International questions Foreign Direct Investment and Brexit
The balance between innovation support and entrepreneurship – where should the focus be?
Should we focus on ‘meaningful’ employment and wellbeing rather than just hard productivity
Lack of devolution – what has this meant for the East Midlands
Local Industrial Strategies – are they positive?
UK Shared Prosperity Fund (to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF))
Should Business Rates be devolved and should there be one single regional pot?
Chris said: “These are all areas in which the Chamber has been outspoken, positively where appropriate and calling for change where change is necessary.
“Being invited to give evidence to the BEIS strategy committee is a positive step forward in driving the changes we want to see to help businesses and communities thrive, both in today’s market and the future, whether that’s inside or outside the EU.”
One of the first questions asked what was the point of the Midlands Engine?
Chris said that in its early days businesses struggled to understand it and what its priorities were and, importantly, were not, but now that its priorities were established there is better understanding.
He cited the planned UK/China Regional Leaders Summit scheduled for early early 2020 which, after considerable work by the Midlands Engine and involving the Chamber, will be held in Birmingham.
Vernon Coker, MP for Gedling, asked more specifically about regional transport needs and specifically about the £2bn Midlands Hub rail improvement bid recently launched by Midlands Connect, the transport section of the Midlands Engine.
Chris said quicker rail services between East Midlands cities and Birmingham will “transform the economy”. One of the goals of the Midlands Hub is to add direct rail services between Coventry and Leicester.
Chris said: “That you can’t get from Leicester to and from Coventry directly is amazing.”
He went on to talk about the need to ensure adequate freight pathways on the rail network, reminding the committee that East Midlands Airport is the busiest pure freight airport in the country and that the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange on the airport’s northern boundary is nearing completion.
Chris also talked about Midlands Connect’s activities to resolve congestion on the A46 – a main route to the docks in the Humber estuary towns – and the main A5 road, to which Vernon added the need to improve the A453 in the vicinity of the airport.
“We have many key manufacturing hubs along these routes and they will be hindered if improvements aren’t made,” Chris said.
Vernon asked how the region should go about seeking funding for road improvements and who, ultimately, was responsible for deciding what local transport priorities should be.
Chris seized the opportunity to remind the committee that, according to the Government’s own figures, the East Midlands continues to receive less infrastructure investment per head than anywhere else in the UK and added: I don’t think in the East Midlands we’ve been cute enough to learn which levers to pull to ensure we get the right levels of investment.”
The committee than pointed out that the Midlands had the highest number in the UK of people without qualifications and the lowest number of skilled workers and asked the panel for their explanations of why that was the case.
Chris acceded it was both a challenge and a matter of constant concern among Chamber Members. He said that whenever the skills gap was raised he would ask which part in particular, and it was usually school leavers that were the biggest concern.
He told the committee the biggest problem was school leavers not having the “soft skills” employers needed, such as knowing how to talk to people face-to-face, answering telephones or being able to take down simple messages.
Chris said: “I think there’s an onus on the business community to engage with academia.”
But in response to a comment from the committee about whether changes to the education system had achieved anything, he said: “When it comes to education at large, it gets tinkered with and over-engineered but still fails to deliver.”
He said that what Members tell the Chamber is that “if we get right attitude in applicants we can teach them the job, but we need those softer skills”.
Chris said: “We know that 60% or our members are struggling to recruit but the overall concern is the work-readiness of school leavers.” He said he thought it essential that businesses should get into schools more.
The discussion moved on to how business themselves could improve, to which Chris suggested they should be encouraged, through incentives, to invest in training and mentoring.
Asked if there was a “crowded landscape” when it came to finding business support for investment and training, Chris said he thought the Local Enterprise Partnership Growth Hubs were doing an excellent job steering businesses the help available.
On the subject of devolution, and whether the lack of it in the East Midlands had disadvantaged the region, Chris said: “I think if you’re central Government it must frustrate you that we’re such a disparate bunch. We’re excited by the prospect of devolution but I think there’s definitely a feeling that the lack of a single point of contact is something that’s been problematic.”
The committee then asked about the Business Bank in the East Midlands and what involvement the Chamber had with it. Chris said interaction had been good, with regular meetings, but there was a feeling that regional businesses tended first to try to finance themselves.
Chris was then asked to what extent the Chamber had been involved in the LEP-led Local Industrial Strategies.
He said: “We’ve been very involved, particularly around low carbon technologies, we have six universities in the region, firms making low carbon products and processes and many firms doing things and exporting their products and expertise around the world.”
Finally, the committee asked about procurement and supply chain opportunities for SMEs on big projects, to which Chris said that despite a lot of effort in that direction many SMEs still thought the processes were not geared towards them, which dissuaded them from chasing opportunities.
The committee is due to report before Christmas on its deliberations from today’s meeting.