Andy Street: 15 years on, we can finally heal the scars of MG Rover’s collapse

1 Dec

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The battle to protect our economy from Coronavirus has brought comparisons with previous downturns, re-examining past recessions and reminding us of the impact felt when major industrial players have collapsed.

The levels of borrowing outlined last week by Rishi Sunak are testament to the unprecedented efforts being made by Government to draw on past experiences and protect jobs as we face a new kind of recession.

Here in the West Midlands, there remain acres upon acres of former industrial land which remind us of previous slumps. With government backing, we are now reclaiming these eyesores to provide new homes and job opportunities.

And as we face this latest challenge, I am hopeful that we will finally heal one of the biggest, and most painful, of these scars. Longbridge, in Birmingham, offers an opportunity to use this economic crisis to erase the results of an infamous economic shockwave.

Completing the regeneration of Longbridge would be a powerful example of Conservative policy actively “levelling up” the economy. For 15 years, local people have waited to see this site fully reclaimed. Let’s show them that after three years under a Conservative mayor, and with a new Conservative MP in place, we are ready to deliver it.

For anyone whose roots are in the West Midlands, car making holds a special place in our hearts. As someone brought up in Northfield, just up the road from the famous Longbridge car plant, I am also very conscious of the past of our car industry. Home of “the Austin”, Longbridge at its 1960s zenith was one of the world’s biggest car factories, employing tens of thousands of people producing ground-breaking vehicles like the Mini.

Then, of course, came the painful decline through the disastrous British Leyland years and beyond. The causes of that decline are still the cause of much debate, but no-one can argue about the individual and collective pain that each job loss brought.

This culminated 15 years ago in the collapse of MG Rover, with the loss of the remaining 6,000 jobs. It remains one of the darkest days in the history of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Psychologically, the closure dented the confidence of a region with a proud automotive pedigree. Economically, MG Rover’s collapse impacted on the thousands of people who worked for the firm and the massive supply chain that supported it.

Physically, when MG Rover shut its gates for the last time it left behind a vast industrial site that reminded us of the closure.

Since then, much of the site has been redeveloped. Developer St Modwen has shown real ambition and vision, effectively building a new town centre on part of site, which also boasts a fantastic college. Aquapak, a firm at the cutting edge of recycled polymers, recently welcomed Alok Sharma to their premises on the new business park there.

The old MG Rover site is being reshaped by a sustainable mix of businesses and housing redevelopment, including state-of-the-art senior living. Yet every time I pass Longbridge, I look across to the parts that remain empty and think about what it once meant for local jobs.

Now I’m determined to complete the regeneration of Longbridge, reclaiming a site that once represented one of our region’s most established industries, by applying one of our newest.

In the last year I have been joined by fellow Brummie Gary Sambrook, the Conservative MP for the area, in this ambition. He has been working with developer St. Modwen to get MG Rover’s “West Works” site redeveloped, and once again generating opportunity for local people.

Together we are promoting Longbridge’s strong business case to be a critical site for Government support through the Urban Transformation Fund. That’s why I submitted Longbridge to Government as one of our region’s top funding bids and it is why Sambrook passionately pitched it to the Chancellor last week in the Commons debate on the Spending Review.

To put it simply, this derelict site – which has been levelled for years – could provide a quite profound and tangible example of “levelling up” in action, and illustrate the West Midlands ability to bounce back from adversity.

That ability is also reflected in the land reclamation technology being pioneered here, which up until the pandemic hit, was cleaning up derelict eyesores like Longbridge and helping us build new homes at record numbers, through our “brownfield first” policy.

The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology.

It is fitting that this example of West Midlands 21st Century innovation can be put to use to “level up” Longbridge, given its links to our industrial heritage.

Of course, there is another reason why the fate of the remaining Longbridge site would resonate so much now. The automotive industry is facing huge challenges. The sector is going through a revolution, illustrated by the Government’s ambitious decision to stop the production of petrol and diesel cars in 2030.

Longbridge stood as a reminder of what happens when we fail to invest in our automotive sector. The promise of £500 million in the Spending Review, to back electric battery technology and production shows the resolve not let this happen again. That’s why the Gigafactory that is so critical to our automotive future must be built in the West Midlands.

Longbridge may, sadly, never produce another car – but the site can produce quality new jobs for local people. With a new Gigafactory, we can recharge the automotive industry 15 years after MG Rover’s collapse.

By backing the regeneration of Longbridge, while investing in the West Midland’s automotive future, the Government can not only accelerate its ambitions to “level up” the economy – it can also drive home a profound message about our ability as a nation to bounce back.

Joel Gladwin: International rivals are catching up on the UK’s fintech success. Here’s how we can defend our crown.

27 Nov

Joel Gladwin is Head of Policy at the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec).

Our fintech sector is a great British success story. Investment into UK fintech companies is at record highs, accounting for over a third of all investment into the sector in Europe. Last year, London had more people working in fintech and a greater number of venture capital investment deals than any other city in the world.

Companies like Monzo, Starling, Revolut and TransferWise are all less than 10 years old but they have matured into global brands in their own right. They have also grown into formidable rivals for customers and their cash, putting pressure on the rest of the financial services sector to step outside its comfort zone, innovate rapidly and embrace a fail-fast, customer-centric culture.

Our historic strength in financial services, combined with forward-thinking regulators in the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and pro-competition policy in the form of open banking, have all contributed to establishing London as the fintech capital of the world.

But that is enough backslapping for now.

Not only are our international rivals catching up when it comes to the volume of fintech deals, they are also drawing up plans to open up more financial – as well as non-financial – data for their fintechs to access and innovate. These plans go well beyond the limited scope of our own open banking regime. The key to defending our fintech crown will be building on this momentum.

Thankfully, the Government is already starting to think seriously about what comes next, with the Treasury and the FCA embarking upon a number of reviews this year including on payments regulations, open finance and the broader UK fintech sector.

Moving beyond open banking to open finance is the next logical step for our fintech sector’s growth and development. It will open up the savings, credit, mortgages and pensions sectors for innovation – and, ultimately, bring consumers more choice, convenience, and ease when it comes to managing their finances.

In its latest Digital Finance Strategy the EU has committed to establishing an open finance framework by 2024. As someone who was involved in the lobbying battles of getting PSD2 over the line – the EU regulation that made open banking possible – I know full well that this is an extremely ambitious target by European standards.

After all, the bureaucratic wranglings of Brussels led PSD2 to be an extremely lengthy project. It spanned five years (2013 to 2018), one directive, eight guidelines, six technical standards and seven opinions. And it has still not been delivered in parts of Europe to this very day. The UK’s approach towards a functional open finance ecosystem can now be quicker, leaner and more agile.

By returning to our principles based approach to regulation, rather than overly prescriptive technical standards, and enabling the market of AP specialists to get on and build the connections for open finance from below, new research by The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec) suggests that it would be possible to unlock the benefits of open in two years.

This isn’t a novel idea either. It has been the approach taken by the Australian Government which has introduced arguably the most expansive open data regulatory initiative in the world.

The Australian Consumer Data Right (CDR) will give consumers the right to access not only their financial data but also utility and telecom data by 2021, even though they started on their journey two years later than us. A market-led, principles-based regulatory framework will allow the UK to deliver open finance much quicker than our near neighbours.

The Chancellor has also made it clear that he will “review our regulatory framework on financial services” and that “not being inside the EU more generally gives us a chance to do things differently.” One area that desperately needs the Treasury’s attention is the innovation-killing, anti-competitive, EU regulation that forces customers to re-authenticate third party access with their bank every 90 days – known as Secure Customer Authentication (SCA).

Imagine having to send your accountant, bookkeeper or financial adviser a new letter of authority every 90 days just so they can continue to work on your behalf. The chances of forgetting to do so would be high – potentially missing filing deadlines, payroll or important insights on your financial health. But this is precisely the situation that customers of accountancy software and financial adviser platforms face.

As a result, fintechs are forced to endure customer attrition rates between 13 per cent and 65 per cent according to industry data, rates which are not viable for any business at either end of the spectrum. This is made even worse by this process being managed by the very same banks for which open banking measures were introduced to provide competition. There is little incentive for them to get this right.

These barriers have thwarted open banking’s potential to add $1.4 billion to the UK’s GDP on an annual basis, according to analysis from the Centre for Economics & Business Research. It is vital that we address them.

The UK’s regulatory influence on the global stage will endure. Informal channels, networks and knowledge communities have always played a critical role in shaping the content and application of policy frameworks, especially in areas where technological progress necessitates new approaches such as fintech. By moving quickly to embrace an open finance environment, and correcting the deficiencies within existing European regulation, the UK can continue to lead on fintech.

Ed Vaizey: Ending tax-free shopping for international visitors would be disastrous for the British economy

19 Oct

Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative Life peer who has sat under this title in the Lords since 10 September 2020. Prior to joining the Lords, he sat in the Commons as an MP, and was first elected in 2005.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Rishi Sunak.  Taking up the toughest of jobs at the toughest of times, he has played a blinder. Job Support Scheme, Bounce Back Loans, Eat Out to Help Out. Even though I’m not an MP any more, I know from talking to my former constituents how much this help has been needed and welcomed.

But with the Government having to make so many decisions so quickly, it’s unlikely everyone will be bang on the money. Even in normal times (remember those?) we occasionally saw unintended consequences.

I’m afraid to say that the Treasury decision to end tax-free shopping for international visitors at the end of December is one of those decisions. At the moment, visitors can reclaim the VAT on stuff they buy here. From January, this will be stopped.

I can see why the Treasury thought it was a clever wheeze. They think it will only affect a small group of very wealthy people. If it hits anywhere, it will hit Bond Street and Bicester village – not exactly marginal vote territory.

But there’s a problem. These wealthy visitors don’t just shop – they eat out, they go to museums and the theatre, stay in hotels. They also travel outside London, visiting places like York and the Lake District.

Also, the posh stuff they buy is often actually made here. Yes folks, those Burberry suits are made in Yorkshire. And those French Chanel jumpers are actually made in Scotland. Which is why we are now in the weird position of the SNP Finance Minister calling out a Tory Chancellor for not backing British business.

The Treasury assumptions, which I have seen, act as if the vast majority of visitors will still come, so the Treasury will make a net gain from them paying VAT. But why should they when we will be the only country in Europe not offering VAT-free shopping?

As a result of this decision, they are likely to go to Paris, Milan or any other European city instead of London. In fact, a recent poll of these visitors showed that if the UK ends tax-free shopping 93 per cent would not buy goods here and 60 per cent wouldn’t even bother visiting post the pandemic. Maybe that’s why the French are giving them a nudge by lowering their VAT free threshold the day after the Treasury took the decision.

It doesn’t take many visitors to change their plans. 13 per cent of all-tax free shoppers account for 44 per cent of all tax-free sales. All it takes is for a small proportion of high-spending international tourists to go elsewhere before the impact is felt. The end result is an increase in job losses.

Retailers, hoteliers and airport chiefs from all over the country have warned that scrapping tax-free shopping for international tourists has put 70,000 jobs in jeopardy. The decision is a big blow to the regions. Tax-free shopping supports 1,800 jobs in Edinburgh and 1,200 jobs in Manchester alone, and the money spent in London stores helps high streets throughout the UK.

Most flights from the UK’s regional airports are to and from Europe. Stores in Birmingham and Manchester had hoped to double sales to EU visitors on the understanding that tax-free shopping would be extended to EU countries once we’d left the bloc. Now the likes of Selfridges and Marks & Spencer are warning the impact it will have on jobs across the country instead. This is not what those workers voted for.

If allowed to go ahead, the decision to end tax-free shopping for international visitors will put Global Britain at a competitive disadvantage and result in thousands of jobs losses. I hope our pragmatic Chancellor will think again.

Richard Ritchie: The climate crisis – and this pandemic – have made the case for a carbon tax stronger than ever before

15 Oct

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

There is something in the air, and it’s not just carbon or virus emissions. Earlier this month, ConservativeHome carried a piece by Rachel Wolf, championing carbon pricing – that is the polite way of describing some form of carbon tax. Then, the influential economist Dieter Helm published in September a new book, Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change, which explains in detail the rationale behind a carbon tax. And from The Times, we’ve learnt that the Chancellor is considering such a tax for his next, Covid-19 budget.

It’s not a new idea. When I worked for BP and climate change first entered the political agenda – before, the main worry was that oil would run out and become too expensive – thoughts on how to price carbon were already in circulation. The oil and gas industry saw some merit in the concept, but favoured emissions trading over a tax, correctly identifying this as a less expensive, Europe-inspired fudge. Now, the combination of a pandemic and climate crisis gives the idea of a carbon tax real traction.

The political implications are important. Climate change and Covid-19 have much in common. Both require us to “follow the science”, although in neither case is the science unanimous. Both are manna from heaven for those who wish to “shut-down” the economy, and limit personal freedom. Both provide excuses for expanding the state. And in both cases, the cure can prove worse than the disease.

There can be little doubt that, so far, global policies to reduce carbon emissions have failed. This won’t worry those who are sceptical of the causes of climate change. But if one believes a failure to act now is to bequeath a catastrophe to future generations, then those on the “right” should be as concerned as those on the “left”.

Where we differ will be on the remedies. So far, “left-of-centre” remedies have generally been the norm. The Kyoto Protocol in 2007 and the Paris Agreement in 2015 have been little more than an opportunity for governments and lobbyists to parade their compassion. Whatever Trump’s motives may be surrounding climate change, his analysis of the Paris Agreement is basically sound. Some of course think its failure is due to inadequate targets; but their targets would make the economic consequences of Covid-19 seem trivial in comparison.

So the question is whether there is a policy which would reduce carbon emissions effectively, in an economically rational way. This is surely one reason why Rishi Sunak is attracted by the idea of a carbon tax as a means of reducing carbon consumption.

In Dieter Helm’s view, the word “consumption” is pivotal. It is no good concentrating solely on industrial emissions, as these won’t necessarily have any global effect – it simply drives emissions abroad, frequently to China. But a carbon tax which crucially incorporated a carbon border tax on imports would, by targeting attention on everyone’s personal carbon footprint, incentivise many things which probably make sense in themselves anyway.

There will be many Conservatives who will argue that all taxes do harm, and that the introduction of a “new” tax is incompatible with Tory beliefs. But unless one is totally sceptical of the science, and dismissive of the need to balance the books, there is much to be said for taxing “bads” rather than “goods”.

Of course it is open to many objections. For example, does the Treasury regard a carbon tax as an emergency measure to raise revenue, or a longstanding instrument to influence behaviour? If it is to serve its purpose, it will eventually yield less revenue.

Equally, if applied in the wrong way, it could merely make this country less competitive. Without care, it could prove regressive. Indeed, if the Paris riots over fuel duty are any guide, it could also prove politically impossible.

Then, for it to work, there must be alternatives for consumers to choose from. Not many will choose an electric car, for example, if there is no guarantee that it can be charged along the journey. (Although mention of electric cars also serves as a reminder that not everything is at it seems – an electric car takes twice as much carbon to produce than a conventional one. A carbon tax would sort that out too).

On the other hand, if properly devised a carbon tax has the capacity both to raise government revenue and to reduce carbon emissions, and even to incentivise other countries to follow suit. Matters to be decided include how the carbon price is fixed and at what level it should be introduced. Should it be levied on consumption or production? Does the tax provide sufficient time for consumers to adjust?

This is the political danger. Carbon taxes could come to the rescue of a cash-strapped Chancellor, because they hold out the prospect of raising new revenue without breaking a manifesto commitment not to raise existing taxes. But if the carbon tax is set too high at the outset, it will be counter-productive. If the Treasury is following Helm’s advice, “the trick is to start low, but credibly signal that the price is going to go up as high as is necessary to achieve the (carbon reduction) target.”

There is no painless way of reducing carbon emissions. Those on the “left” will embrace a policy which involves “picking winners”, nationalisation, subsidies, exemptions, regulation and illiberal compliance. A lobbyist’s paradise. The alternative is to incentivise new technologies, create new markets and provide practical signals to consumers. This is the purpose of a carbon tax. It will never be “popular” because the costs of transforming the networks, communications and transport of this country to facilitate lower carbon emissions are enormous.

But compared with the alternatives, a carbon tax is at least rational and addresses all the major sources of carbon emissions, namely agriculture, transport and electricity. Moreover, it produces a new source of government revenue at a time when it is desperately needed.

Any new tax is depressing to a free market Tory. But climate change, like pandemics, raises issues which are more important than economics. If it is a whole load of nonsense to claim that today’s climate change is man-made, then we are free to carry on as we are.

But if not, Tories have an obligation to advocate alternative solutions to those of the socialist “greens”. The market is the best way of allocating scare resources effectively. But in a time of war, the market cannot tell us how much to spend on butter or guns. That is a political choice, and it is the nature of the choice presented by climate change, if most scientists are to be believed. On so many levels and for so many reasons, it is hardly surprising if Sunak is pondering one.

Caroline Nokes: Spare a thought for women. Male ministers have forgotten we exist in their lockdown easing plans.

30 Jun

Caroline Nokes is Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North. 

Covid-19 has taught us many things about the importance of physical and mental wellbeing. We discovered (if we actually needed to be told) that your chances of recovery were greatly improved by being physically fit and in the normal weight range for your height.

We found out that mental resilience was important to cope with long periods of relative isolation, and social contact carried out mainly by Zoom. We were told very firmly that an hour of exercise should be part of our daily routine, and pretty much the only way to escape the house legitimately.

But for women in particular the importance of wellbeing seems to have gone well and truly out of the window as lockdown is relaxed.

Why oh why have we seen the urge to get football back, support for golf and fishing, but a lack of recognition that individual pilates studios can operate in a safe socially-distanced way, rigorously cleaned between clients?

Barbers have been allowed to return from July 4 because guess what – men with hair need it cut. They tend not to think of a pedicure before they brave a pair of sandals, although perhaps the world would be a better place if they did. Dare I say the great gender divide is writ large through all this?

Before anyone gets excited that women enjoy football and men do pilates can we please just look at the stats? Football audiences are (according to 2016 statistics) 67 per cent male and don’t even get me started on the failure of the leading proponents of restarting football to mention the women’s game.

Pilates and yoga (yes I know they are not the same thing) have a client base that is predominantly women and in the region of 80 per cent of yoga instructors are women. These are female-led businesses, employing women, supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of women, and still they are given no clue as to when the end of lockdown will be in sight.

Could it be that the decisions are still being driven by men, for men, ignoring the voices of women round the Cabinet table, precious few of them though there are? I have hassled ministers on this subject, and they tell me they have been pressing the point that relaxation has looked more pro-men than women, but it looks like the message isn’t getting through.

I will declare an interest. Since I first adopted Grapefruit Sparkle as a suitably inoffensive nail colour for an election campaign in 2015, I have been a Shellac addict. The three weekly trip to Unique Nails is one of life’s little pleasures, an hour out, sitting with constituents, chatting, laughing, drinking tea.

It is good for the soul, a chance to recharge and chill out. And for many of the customers it is their chance to not have to bend to get their toenails trimmed, it is a boost to their mood, that can last for a full three weeks until it is time for a change.

And it is a fairly harmless change to go from Waterpark to Tartan Punk in an hour. Natural nails have done very little for my mood since a nice chap from Goldman Sachs told me: “you could go far if only you opted for a neutral nail, perhaps a nice peach.”

At school I was described as a “non-participant” in sport – I hated it, and it has taken decades to find the activities I can tolerate to keep my weight partially under control. Walking the dog is a great way, but nothing is as effective as the individual work-out rooms in a personal training studio – where it is perfectly possible for those of us who do not like to be seen in lycra to exercise in isolation and then have the place cleaned for the next victim.

I am not suggesting it is only women who do not like to exercise in vast gyms, there are men with similar phobias, but what I cannot get over is the lack of recognition that a one-to-one session in a studio is not the same as toddling off to your local treadmill factory.

The Pilates studio owners of Romsey and Southampton North are deeply frustrated at the apparent inability to draw the distinction between their carefully controlled environments and much larger facilities where, to be blunt, there is a lot of sweat in the atmosphere.

I know I get criticised for being obsessed about women – it goes hand in hand with the job description – but I cannot help but feel this relaxation has forgotten we exist. Or just assumed that women will be happy to stay home and do the childcare and home schooling, because the sectors they work in are last to be let out of lockdown, while their husbands go back to work, resume their lives and celebrate by having a pint with their mates.

(And yes I do know women drink beer too, but there is a gender pint gap, with only one in six women drinking beer each week compared to half of men.)

Crucially, women want their careers back and they want their children in school or nursery. Of course home working has been great for some, but much harder if you are also juggling childcare and impossible if your work requires you to be physically present, like in retail, hairdressing, hospitality.

These are sectors where employees are largely women, and which are now opening up while childcare providers are still struggling to open fully – with reduced numbers due to social distancing requirements. It is a massive problem, which I worry has still not been fully recognised or addressed.

Perhaps if the PM needed to sort the childcare, get his nails done and his legs waxed it might be different. But it does seem that the Health Secretary, the Chancellor, the Business Secretary and the Secretary of State for Sport and Culture, who all have a very obvious thing in common, have overlooked the need to help their female constituents get out of lockdown on a par with their male ones.

Am I going to have to turn up to work with hairy legs to persuade them that women’s wellbeing matters?