Coventry, a Global City

Coventry, a Global City

On Monday 10th December the BFPG co-hosted the Coventry a Global City event with the West Midlands Economic Forum and Coventry University as part of our National Engagement work. The event assessed how Coventry might further enhance its international profile by utilising its soft power and economic strengths post Brexit.

Paul Forrest, Director of the West Midlands Economic Forum highlighted that some of the key challenges that the region faces are based on the challenges presented to the region’s economic outlook. The region’s economy is still heavily dependent upon its exporting capacity outside of the EU. For instance, the West Midlands accounts for 3% of the world’s aerospace global output – which suggests that there is scope to boost its international presence through trade post Brexit as it already has an international reputation for exporting.

Despite the regions potential to grow its global presence, key infrastructural issues must be addressed to allow the region to realise its economic potential. Improving the regions overall connectivity should be a key priority. Key areas that require improvement are:

Broadband connectivity – upgrade to 4G

Transportation

Rail

Air

Sea

In addition to developing these key areas Paul’s introduction revealed that solutions for sustainable industrial development and slow productivity must be developed. By utilising innovative technology and diversifying the work force, issues around sustainable industrial development and slow productivity could be resolved effectively. Resolving these key issues is particularly important given the recent slowdown of exports across key markets and uncertainty over Brexit, which has affected the region’s place within the international supply chain. At this point, the region should seek to look beyond its automotive sector and develop new industries that could help the region thrive post Brexit.

Following on from Paul’s analysis, a business panel examined why having an innovative and diverse eco system may help to deliver economic growth.  Panellists for this session were:

Chair: Tom Cargill, The British Foreign Policy Group

Pam Waddell, Director Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands

Professor Jonothan Needlands, Creative Education at the Warwick Business School

Mr Shri S.M. Chakraborty, Head of Chancery, Consulate General of India, Birmingham

Currently the UK is 4th in the world for innovation, overtaking the U.S which shows that the UK has the infrastructure to develop an innovative and sustainable economy post Brexit. This is particularly important for the West Midlands, given that it has the second highest number of patents outside of Cambridge which signals that the region could play a key role in innovating the UK’s economy. Panellists put forward their ideas on how they think the West Midlands might diversify its economy to enhance its economic outputs. Local leaders and businesses should try to work better with central government. Currently,  the government is trying to revive its national industrial strategy by trying to work with regions across the UK. Hence, the theme of innovation has formed a core part of the government’s national industrial strategy. The aims of the strategy underpinned that of the key points made by some of the speakers

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently revealed that its latest industrial strategy will promote greater cohesive thinking to develop greater economic prosperity throughout the UK. In fact, the governments industrial strategy the aim of this strategy underpins many of the key points made by some of the speakers as the strategy covered the following themes:

Industry

Ideas

Business

People

For instance, on the theme of people and innovation, panellists stressed that the region could achieve economic prosperity through developing the skills set of those within the region. This could be achieved through courses delivered at Further Education colleges, promotion of science and innovation courses, encouraging more women to opt for STEM courses and promoting a better representation of BAME groups from the region.

To simply view the West Midlands as a car manufacturing hub limits the collective value of the region. The city of Coventry serves as a perfect example of how the West Midlands has modernised to develop creative economic outputs and Coventry’s creative sector provides promising ideas about its economic growth. A key point raised by Jonothan Needlands was that because of the concentrated focus on the manufacturing industry the region’s creative arts and entrepreneurial reputation have been overlooked.

How else might economic prosperity and better connectivity be achieved?

Engagement with entrepreneurs, SMEs and diaspora groups could help to generate economic growth for the region. Sri Chakraborty highlighted that the Birmingham Consulate of India works with over 24 countries across the UK to develop business links with India. If more cities such as Coventry played an active role in building these links with other regions then there may be scope for boosting the UK’s overall economic output too.

Diaspora groups and international trade links

One possible solution for enhancing Coventry’s international links would be through boosting engagement with diaspora communities. This would be valuable because it aligns with the governments broader vision of the Global Britain agenda. By encouraging Chinese and Indian diaspora communities to work with policy makers on international trade consultations, could help bridge gaps in knowledge around how the UK can boost its trade links in Asia. Also, engagement with key regions such as India and China would be important for the UK as a whole as it seeks to meet its 35% GDP export target.

In order for Coventry to boost its international profile, collaboration between major cities within the West Midlands could enable the region to successfully compete with the likes of the Northern Powerhouse.

Institutional collaboration and recognition

Members of the audience noted that when institutions and business groups collaborate, they do not do enough to raise media awareness about the partnerships that they have formed. The lack of awareness of these partnerships  risks implying the region is incapable of fostering collaboration through a broad range of organisations – which is harmful because it could deter potential investors.

Productivity 4.0 challenges

The scarcity of high-speed broadband in Coventry serves as a key obstacle to the region’s economic growth ambitions. Connectivity issues must be resolved if SMEs in the region are to thrive, as many SMEs depend on high speed internet to keep up with their competitors to maintain their client bases.

In addition, the electricity demand in the region has grown. Coupled with this demand is the need to develop renewable energy alternatives that would allow the region to cope with its population growth, so in energy resources would be valuable.

The issue of lack of financial investment is closely linked to low productivity level that continues to threaten economic growth in the region. On this matter, local and national government need to commit to long term financial investment into the region. Looking ahead, Investors and businesses need to have a long-term view of the region that looks beyond Brexit.

Another key issue raised during the session was around the unequal distribution of taxes across the region. Unfair distribution of taxes and cuts to local authorities has left the region with little capacity to utilise its resources. A system which allows for a fairer distribution of income throughout the region is key to help boost the West Midlands social mobility capacity over the coming years. It is worth noting that all of the challenges aforementioned are also aligned to levels of low productivity and lack of technical capabilities.

Pam Waddle stressed that businesses could improve Coventry’s economic outlook if they actively sought to build better links across a range of sectors. One of the ways that this could be achieved is if smaller businesses take active steps to promote internal collaboration within the West Midlands Combined authority. In order for this to happen, channels of communication between both groups must be opened. Policy makers must also be willing to engage with businesses of all sizes, to maximise outputs across the region. This is why developing policies that have a national, regional and economic focus in collaboration with the private sector could help to improve the likelihood of achieving set outcomes.

Brexit

56.6% of voters in Coventry voted to leave the EU in 2016. Many based their decision to leave on  concerns over low wages being their primary concern. The concerns of those who voted to leave are still relevant today. In order to resolve some of the issues that Brexit might present, policy makers must assess how Coventry can create a diverse workforce to succeed post Brexit. There are two key concerns over how this could be achieved. The first is the lack of representation of BAME groups within businesses- this has arguably led to the lack of diversity in the skills set available within businesses in Coventry.

Secondly, issues around what innovation means and how this shapes company culture, should be discussed more frequently. By allowing for greater public discourse on Coventry’s place in the world, a range of stakeholders can get involved in taking actions to resolve issues that matter to them. Different types of leadership positions need to be carefully defined to show that the West Midlands can pursue a different approach to succeed over the coming years. In order for the region to succeed in the increasingly competitive international business environment, a new holistic approach to understanding business skills and company culture must be developed.

Education

There are various ways that the region can improve its vocational education capacity. Members of the audience stressed that the current educational model being utilised by Further Education colleges does little to produce creative outputs. This in turn has produced a cohort of school leavers who aren’t equipped with the digital, business and life skills required to cope with modern day business challenges. As such there is scope for local and national governments to work together to design innovate solutions to cope with the challenges that an outdated education system has produced.

The second panel examined claims over whether the West Midlands has an identity issue. Panellists chose to address this issue as concerns over Coventry’s international reputation post Brexit had been expressed. The discussion showed that polarising views based on the economy, migration and social issues have steepened intergenerational divisions between groups in the city. The speakers for this session were:

Chair: Matt Qvortrup, Chair of Political Science Coventry University

Kathy Leach, Joint Head, Policy Unit, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Martin Sutherland, Chief Executive, Coventry City of Culture Trust

Professor Mike Hardy, Executive Director, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations Coventry University

Beverley Nielsen, Executive Director Institute of Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA), Birmingham City University

 Procurement and local authority

Currently, the West Midlands has the lowest level of procurement in the UK. Central government cuts to public services have had an impact on the region as a whole – linked to this issue is the  continuation of the concentration of power and resources in Whitehall. Due to these structural issues,  disillusion within the region has persisted – which has  limited the region’s capability to leverage its soft power resources effectively. The combination of lack of control over resources and lack of investment into the region has disempowered many from working on projects that could not only bring communities together, but also help to advance the cities overall soft power value.

Beverly Neilsen highlighted that in order for the region to have any real soft power value, investing in SMEs should be prioritised. By fostering greater collaboration between the public and private sphere this could also prompt greater investment into the region from Whitehall. Governments willingness to work with a broad spectrum of businesses to see both the economic and soft power value of doing so. In order for local government to advocate for a soft power strategy, funding should be made more accessible to resolve issues around mobility. Secondly the soft power value of SMEs should be reiterated to policy makers in Whitehall to promote broader streams of engagement across the public and private sector. 

Grass root level engagement

Coventry may have been named as the City of Culture 2021, however, members of the audience suggested that there has been little discourse between grass roots level organisations and civil society groups on the topic of soft power. As such, the ability of the region to collectively decide on what is ‘attractive’ has become a source of contention. More conversations around what soft power means to local artists and local government must be had. How they define soft power and what makes Coventry and the rest of the region ‘attractive’ is on them.

Youth

Engaging with young people through initiatives such as the football for peace programme could also help to heighten the regions role in the UK and across the world. Coventry has been titled ‘a city of peace’ due to its welcoming approach towards refugees. However, to some extent, Brexit risks devaluing this title and perhaps created the impression that there are issues between different groups within the region. Work must be done to reconstruct the narrative around Coventry so that the city is to make the most of its soft power capabilities. From the discussion it was clear that young people have a willingness to help change the perception that the city is not an inclusive place for people from different backgrounds.

Future

Both panel discussions highlighted that Coventry and the West Midlands as a whole needs greater support from policy makers in Whitehall to enhance its soft power and economic capacity post Brexit. The unpredictable economic climate that Brexit has produced has not had a substantial impact on the region, but there is scope for improving key parts of its infrastructure for the purposes of economic prosperity. Greater engagement between diaspora communities could help to generate innovative ways of thinking across various sectors. Similarly, re-assessing courses available to young people through Further Education colleges is also key. The challenges around bridging the skills gap is based on a lack of investment into local government by Whitehall. To mitigate risks of lack of funding innovative methods of engagement between the public and private sphere must be established. This indicates that overall promoting engagement across all levels will help the West Midlands and Coventry thrive post Brexit.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
About
Nadia Khan
nadia.khan@bfpg.org.uk

Nadia is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group. Nadia is a graduate in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. Prior to joining BFPG Nadia worked in Vienna and Kosovo on Human Rights issues around post-conflict state resolutions. She has a keen interest in British foreign policy, in particular the role played by international Space programmes in fostering cooperation between states to achieve the UN sustainable development goals. Nadia is fluent in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati.