The Midlands Engine summit this time last week, held at Trent University’s impressive city conference centre, attracted a broad mix of business leaders, universities and local authorities and from the outset, the question of the Midlands identity was broached and dealt with.
Opinions on where and what is the Midlands tend to muddy the water – not least because commentators view us either in relation to London or in relation to ‘the North’.
Respected chair of the Engine Sir John Peace set out the stall quickly: we are bigger than either of these one-eyed views: it takes a true Midlander to know it. And the prize is worth ignoring the naysayers and the parochial: The Midlands Engine should generate £34 billion by 2030, creating 300,000 extra jobs and improving transport, business support and skills.
To put that into an emphatic - and telling - perspective for policy makers, the Midlands economy is bigger than that of Scotland.
Whether we are in the Potteries, the Black Country, the shires of Hereford, Lincolnshire or in one of our amazing cities, this is a great place to study, live, work and do business – a view echoed by Nottingham City council leader Jon Collins and passionately backed by business minister and Broxtowe MP Anna Soubry.
Empty political boosterism? No. In his opening comments, Sir John made mention of the overwhelming contribution the Midlands has made to the UK both in the past and right here, right now and how much more we could become working together. From Shakespeare to the industrial revolution the UK would be nothing without the beating heart of the Midlands.
Right here in the Midlands
- One third of all UK manufacturing jobs are in in the Midlands
- Exports £48bn products: 17% of all UK exports
- Our highly sought after and innovative 25 universities & 54 FE colleges in are teaching more than half a million students a year
- Derby’s rail industry is worth £2.6bn & employs 25k people
- Leicestershire’s food and drink industry – from your Stilton to pork pies to Walkers crisps is worth £600m
- We even export Indian snack foods to India!
And Birmingham is the most entrepreneurial UK city outside London with over 14,000 new businesses registered during 2015. And we haven’t even mentioned the huge game changer for the Midlands – HS2.
Businesses have a critical part to play in order to tell our story and not let it be framed by others. Our own profession the Chartered Institute of Public Relations can also do its bit – we know more than anyone what our clients do day in, day out is fantastic, not just in our own backyard but right across the UK and the world. We need to tell that story as well.
The relationship with London matters; the facts and figures suggest Westminster and Whitehall would be making a terrible strategic error if they do not provide meaningful support for the engine room of the UK economy - the place which powers so much global innovation and value.
But to suggest we should follow in the footsteps of the Northern Powerhouse - a politically-driven initiative whose external image is invested largely in one city - misunderstands what the Midlands is.
There is a compelling story to be told, one which mixes heritage with amazing industrial achievement. Like the low, powerful hum of a Solihull-built Range Rover, or the distance-defying power of Derby's Rolls-Royce jet engines, we need to move through the gears to make the Midlands Engine roar.