The man tasked with selling the Midlands to the world believes a Brexit deal is just around the corner and the region was ready to start punching above its weight again.
Fresh from promoting £17.6 billion worth of development schemes to a global audience, Sir John Peace said the world’s eyes were on the Midlands because of the fantastic investment opportunities it offers.
Sir John chairs the Midlands Engine partnership, representing a region that drives something like a quarter of England’s exports and makes up the country’s biggest economic area outside London and the South East.
With a population of 10.3 million people and 835,000 businesses based here, with second-to-none road and rail links and HS2 arriving soon, the region, he said, is well placed to lead UK growth in the years and decades to come.
Sir John has just helped host the first Midlands UK Forum for Growth, a virtual three day conference providing a shop window for billions of pounds of opportunities across housing, infrastructure and connectivity, regeneration, technology and green energy.
The sort of schemes being pushed include waterside regeneration areas in Leicester and Nottingham, the University of Leicester’s new Space Park, the £700 million Paradise office and accommodation scheme in the heart of Birmingham, and hundreds of millions of pounds of regeneration schemes in Stoke city centre.
There are also chances for big multinationals to be part of the HS2 interchange in Solihull and the redevelopment around Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station and East Midlands Airport which could eventually create 84,000 jobs and thousands of new homes.
Sir John joined the Midlands Engine having been chairman, chief executive and a founder of Experian, and chairman of both Standard Chartered bank and Burberry.
The work of the Midlands Engine was continuing throughout and despite the global pandemic, he said.
“If you look at places like Leicester and Manchester they have never really come out of lockdown – it’s been very difficult.
“I think what it indicates is that the vaccine, coupled with mass testing – which, it would appear has made a huge difference in Liverpool – means there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“But for the next two to three months until this mass immunisation has been completed, and certainly until there are more mass testing facilities in place, people are going to have to be very careful.
“Clearly when it comes to promoting tourism and looking at the visitor economy, for instance, it’s a big issue for the Midlands’ region as a whole, because it’s so important to the economy here.
“At the end of the day whether it’s councils or Government, there is still that balancing act between the health care emergency, and people losing their lives, up against, frankly, the destruction of prosperity for so many small business owners.
“It’s a terrible, terrible dilemma. The Midlands is one of the worst hit parts of the country.
“The question is how quickly can the Midlands recover from that situation.
“There are some sectors that have thrived during this period – the tech sector, bio-sciences – but at the same time there are some that have been absolutely devastated.
“You just can’t generalise on this thing.
“I think 2020 has been awful, an absolutely dreadful, rotten year and the sooner it is over the better.
“Having said that, what I learned from the three days of our Forum For Growth is that there is a lot of optimism.
“Don’t forget that going into this lockdown we were the fastest growing region in the country.
“Government can’t raise expectations but what it can do is very carefully invest in infrastructure and levelling up funds, things like that, because the quicker the economy starts to grow again and people’s prosperity starts to return, then confidence and an ability to invest and grow further will come.
“I do think the Chancellor has got the balance right. I’ve spoken to people who think 2022 is a long way away – it’s not, it really isn’t.”
Some 600 people attended the virtual forum, each with an interest in either buying into or selling out of the region – and each keen on making those deals a success, regardless of what immediate obstacles they face.
He said: “Over the course of the next year or two we will be campaigning to really raise the profile of the Midlands and to attract investment and encourage trade post-Brexit.
“I think it would be great if we could get a Brexit deal and get on with what the Prime Minister describes as global Britain. That would be terrific.
“If we don’t, I think there will be some impact of a no-deal Brexit – some companies might not notice, but some companies will be negatively impacted.
“But the reason it would be good to get a deal is that to have to deal with a health crisis, a financial depression, and then Brexit is one hell of a task, no matter how good a Government may be.
“The reality is nobody really knows what a no-deal Brexit would bring. The EU is still a major trading partner, Germany in particular.
“But I think from a Midlands point-of-view, once it is clear what the rules are for doing business with the EU post-Brexit, I would hope we can really get out there.
“We are not walking away from Europe. On the contrary I think it is going to continue to be a major trading partner for many years to come.
“This is about the nature and relationship we have with the EU rather than any desires to stop trading with the EU.
“The Midlands Engine is a-political – we are trying to help businesses. But what we do is analyse the trends when they happen and use evidence-based research to determine what we think are the risks.
“Clearly Brexit is a risk, there’s no question about it, but at the same time represents an opportunity.
“It always goes down to the wire, with any negotiations with the EU.
“It’s always the night before, and they are all having dinner ‘til late then adjourn after a few glasses of wine to have the last minute discussions that go on to the small hours of the morning.”
The Midlands Engine covers an area stretching from Lincoln, right across Leicester, Derby Stoke, Coventry and Birmingham, over to Hereford.
Sir John said despite the dominance of Birmingham in the region’s economy, cities and towns in the East Midlands, for instance, were just as significant in the UK picture.
He said: “I’m with [Leicester Mayor] Peter Soulsby. He would say to you the relationship he has with the Midlands Engine is absolutely crucial.
“If you look at the population of the East Midlands and the West Midlands they are not that far apart. If you look at the number of businesses they are not hugely different.
“Both of them are the two fastest growing parts of the economy.
“Today, when people say the West Midlands is growing at this speed or that speed, they often mean the wider combined authority – not simply Birmingham.
“And what Sir Peter would say to you is that that is why the East Midlands has come together under its new development corporation. They are increasingly working together because scale can matter, to focus and prioritise things that will have an impact not just to one city or one town, but that part of the country as a whole.
“I am really impressed by how our local leaders, universities and businesses have come together to come up with some really exciting ideas.
“Look at what is going on Space Park Leicester for example or Loughborough University.
“We may not have as big a population as China and India, and our economy may not be as big as America and China, but when it comes to innovation and enterprise, Britain is right up there and the Midlands is right up there within it.”
And he said HS2 could plays a big part in boosting that.
“The National Infrastructure Commission has been asked by the Government to look into the best ways of delivering the eastern leg.
“The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that he wants to deliver HS2 in its entirety.
“The question is how do you do that? If you are going to do this in 2040-2050 it’s too far in the future, so the NIC are looking at how best to implement this.
“Again, the East Midlands has come together effectively to provide the evidence needed to support the argument for HS2 being fundamental, not just for north-south connectivity, but east-west.
“Not many people are looking at HS2 in the East Midlands so they can get to London faster – rather for just getting around the Midlands itself.
“The rail links between Leicester and Coventry are awful. Someone told me it can take 1 hour 40 mins to get from Nottingham to Birmingham. Contrast that with getting down to London. It’s crazy.
“The reason for this is decades of successive Governments under-investing in the East Midlands.
“That’s why it’s time now for Government to really invest some money here if it really wants to make a difference.”