A visit to the Palace of Westminster is always the source of new delight or distraction. Wandering along a corridor there earlier this week around midday I came upon Peter Bone MP munching a packet of crisps. Mr Bone is a Conservative backbencher of the no-nonsense -man-of-the-people school who has underlined his unlikely feminist credentials by relaying questions to the Prime Minister as reporting the concerns of the - no doubt estimable – Mrs Bone. Maybe she is failing to provide her husband with a packed lunch. (I did wonder if Mr Bone’s somewhat acerbic views on many aspects of modern life might be due to an over consumption of salt and vinegar crisps but wasn’t in the end able to check this as he departed taking the empty packet with him.)
However I wasn’t there to check up on the diets of MPs. In a committee room close to where Mr Bone took his modest repast, Liam Byrne had convened a meeting aimed at stimulating Chinese investment In Birmingham. It’s the first in a programme of similar events that Mr Byrne, vice chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Far East intends to hold, and Birmingham got first dibs. The scope for city-city connections in building economic links between the UK and China was one of the themes of Byrne’s book published last year and , for what its worth, chimes with my own experience.
For example, many Chinese cities see sister/ twin city links as potentially vital economic connections. One of the challenges in moving forward in this particular opportunity –as so often with China - is one of a mismatch of scale. Guangzhou – one of Birmingham’s Chinese sister cities and perhaps the most compelling opportunity – is ten times bigger than Birmingham in both population and land area. If we really want to interact with them we need to offer a much bigger target. There is a lot of pre-election smoke and mirrors manifesting itself around ‘northern powerhouses’ and ‘super cities’ but the simple fact is that both in the Midlands and across the UK we need to find some means of bulking up materially for the economic relations with Chinese city regions Liam Byrne aspires to be delivered.
Professor Sir David Eastwood of the University of Birmingham and Neil Rami from Marketing Birmingham each presented the audience -including a very substantial Chinese presence – with a properly upbeat presentation of the City and its many strengths. While people here in Birmingham may feel overwhelmed by the pressures of austerity in local government and the other grave challenges that the city does face, it is good to be reminded of strengths and opportunities.
However as both are well aware, workforce and graduates, airport expansion and recent success in attracting new investment just a beginning. All of the real global competition for mobile Chinese or other investment can readily offer these goodies too. They are really little more than a bye into the third round proper of the FA Cup that gives the chance to mix it with the real big boys.
And how do we really distinguish ourselves from these others ? Neil Rami floated an intriguing idea - albeit one that requires another refocusing of our approach. As HS2 becomes a reality, he suggests locations such as UK Central around the airport become – with only the merest dash of hyperbole – Travel Zone 7 of London. Leave aside the HS2 debate around speed or capacity - what this highlights is our proximity – to the global hub that is London and to the market opportunities of London and the South East. Cost effective and unique proximity allied to all of the other strengths of the area begins to shape into a truly compelling proposition.
And the vital importance of proximity on an grander scale was at the core of the message from James Hunter Johnson of NVC Lighting, China’s largest manufacturers of LED lighting and one of Birmingham’s first wave of significant Chinese investments. Hunter Johnson stressed that the single market means there was a uniform approach to the regulation of their products across the EU and ease of moving product from the UK. The general consensus in discussion afterwards seemed to be that the UK’s continued membership of the EU was an important issue for other potential Chinese investors here.
Peter Bone ( to return to him) is a Euro-sceptic . He (and Mrs Bone) are currently organising their own referendum on EU membership in Northamptonshire – where his constituency sits. Maybe Liam Byrne could persuade Mr Bone to attend the next of his China events. Possibly the offer of a sandwich lunch could tempt him across the committee room threshold. It could be interesting.