The UK’s West Midlands: punching hard in the global ring

Nicola Hewitt is the Commercial Director of the UK’s West Midlands Growth Company. The company is charged with executing the region’s Super Economic Plan; that is bringing together the local economy, skills and quality of life, working collaboratively, and delivering a first-class FDI offer. Jo Murray speaks to her.

The West Midlands Growth Company was established to attract investment, jobs, visitors and businesses to the West Midlands region on behalf of the West Midlands Combined Authority. It is not that these roles were not previously performed; it’s just that the strategic marketing role performed by a partnership of various local bodies needed revving up to deliver its offer on the global stage, compete worldwide and go deeper, further, faster.

The new body will work in partnership with three Local Enterprise Partnerships, local authorities, Growth Hubs, universities and the private sector. It is charged with delivering a pipeline of major inward investment propositions; developing a more focused and seamless business support programme; and marketing the West Midlands’ visitor-economy assets to both the business and leisure sectors.

Perhaps inspired by successes like the relocation of HSBC UK from London to Birmingham, there is renewed determination to put the West Midlands on the international map to create new jobs, expand existing businesses and attract new investment to the region. Like many urban areas, the West Midlands has understood that the City of Birmingham will achieve more in partnership with its neighbouring cities of Coventry, Wolverhampton, the Black Country, Solihull and Warwickshire, than it can alone.

“We have to work across the whole conurbation of 4.5 million people,” says Ms Hewitt. “That is the same population level as Toronto, Singapore, Melbourne and Chicago. We have to be comparable, and Birmingham alone was just not big enough.”

The West Midlands is the second largest economic region of the UK, Ms Hewitt reminds us. “But we have to organise our disparate strengths into opportunities.” To this end, the region has identified five key sectors that it is taking to the international market for the purposes of FDI activity.

Firstly, there is, of course, advanced manufacturing, especially automotive. The West Midlands has long been associated with heavy engineering, vehicle production, the associated supply chains and their shifting fortunes. The desire to both modernise and diversify away from the region’s traditional assets is a no brainer. Then there is the business and professional services sector which is very much ripe for marketing attention, especially given HSBC’s high-profile move; so too is the IT and creative sector. The fourth sector on the West Midlands Growth Company’s radar is the life sciences sector given the region’s centres of excellence, its med-tech credentials and its drug discovery achievements; and the fifth sector is food and beverage processing.

Investment in infrastructure has only made the offer stronger. “We have to make sure of connectivity,” says Ms Hewitt. Devolution from central government has given the region a significant transport infrastructure investment budget so that bus, rail and logistics can all meet world-class expectations. But these projects are dwarfed by the headline-hitting High Speed Two (HS2) project, the ambitious high velocity railway scheme being rolled out to connect London with the North of England. Phase One runs between London and the West Midlands; and Phase Two runs from the West Midlands to Leeds and Manchester. HS2 Ltd is the company responsible for developing and promoting the UK’s new high speed rail network.

The official start of the competition for the £2.75bn contract to design, build and maintain Britain’s next generation of high speed trains has already been launched. The successful bidder will work with HS2 Ltd to develop around 60 state-of-the-art trains to transport passengers across the country on the new high speed rail network and onto the existing railway. HS2 Ltd will work with companies and suppliers to create opportunities for small and medium sized enterprises, boost skills and encourage a wide range of people to join the workforce. In total 25,000 jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships will be created during HS2 construction

The search for world-class architects, designers and developers to deliver four ambitious new HS2 stations has also begun with the publication of contract opportunities for station designs and a development partner for London Euston. The UK Government has said that HS2 means the launch of schemes totalling £70 million for communities along the route between Birmingham and London.

In recognition of the ongoing magnitude of the project, Ms Hewitt points out that two colleges have been created to train the next generation of high speed rail engineers, with the National College for High Speed Rail in Birmingham being built simultaneously with a sister facility in Doncaster in the North.

The engineering opportunities emanating from HS2 are pertinent given West Midlands’ association with engineering and transportation. “But we have to change into a different shape of manufacturing,” says Ms Hewitt, commenting on the technology park that is being derived from the former Longbridge car manufacturing plant. She reminds us that the modern automotive industry increasingly revolves around technology and advanced materials; there is no harking back to traditional methods and resources.

She is looking to technology to rejuvenate the West Midlands but also to embrace the region’s industrial base. This means that fintech, cyber security, automotive technology, med-tech and many other sub-sectors will find a natural home there. But, of course, talent is vital to the mix and the region has that covered too. Wolverhampton, Coventry, Birmingham City, Aston, Warwick and Birmingham Universities are a fine clutch of educational institutions with the first three providing much of the technical expertise that will underpin growth and the latter being perhaps more academia/research oriented. Many of these universities already have strong links with business. Ms Hewitt comments: “They will continue to collaborate and to commercialise that collaboration.” And let’s not forget the strong network of further education colleges that will provide a vital pipeline of manpower – being both diversified and youthful – to businesses as they arrive in the region.

But no one in the West Midlands is waiting for the starting pistol. Recent Department for International Trade data shows Greater Birmingham, for example, is a strong performer in terms of FDI. There has been a 188% increase in foreign investment projects since 2011/12 across a range of sectors with 11,119 jobs created – more than any other region outside London. Investors include global brands such as American-owned software provider Advanced, Chinese automotive manufacturer Changan and American civil engineering firm Jacobs Engineering.

Foreign investment has been predominantly driven by the advanced manufacturing sector which represented 31% of all projects. This was closely followed by the IT, creative and digital sector with 23% and by business, professional and financial services at 15%. US firms were the most prominent investors, accounting for 32% of all projects, with China coming second. Incoming firms have cited Greater Birmingham’s transport links, affordable space and strong talent pool as major draws.

The West Midlands Growth Company may be a new organisation – with fresh enthusiasm for growth – but the spoils of competing in the international ring are already evident. It is plain to see that the legacy of an industrial past in tandem with fervent recent eco-system building and ambitious international aspirations are already paying dividends.