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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Chamber Blog: An Audience with Mr Clegg


By Chris Fletcher, Director of Policy and Communications at Greater Manchester Chamber of
Commerce

On Tuesday, a small group of local business owners and I had the pleasure of a lunchtime roundtable with Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. The DPM was in town to announce the launch of a new pot of funding, £50m, to start to tackle the issue of youth unemployment. The event, put together by local MP John Leech, was a chance to give some direct feedback, on a range of issues, directly to the top levels of government.

As is usually the case with these types of events, Chatham House rules were the order of the day so unfortunately I’m not at liberty to give a word by word account of the verbal sparring that took place – not that there were too many contentious issues raised, although there were some areas that we agreed to disagree on. On the whole, it was an intelligent exchange of views on subjects as diverse as the future energy needs of the UK (Nuclear to fracking) through to the level and effectiveness of the various schemes set up by the coalition to help ease credit conditions for business. There were also a few issues which the DPM said he would raise with relevant departments and come back to us on, so watch this space.

One of the key areas I was interested in hearing about, was the recent government policy shifts moving away from a “place based” strategy to a more sector- focused approach through what is known in government circles as the Industrial Strategy. The Chamber’s skills work – putting funding for training directly into employers’ hands – is part of the City Deal for Greater Manchester and very much focused on making the most of what local businesses need here, within Greater Manchester. Yes, there are sector considerations to this, but first and foremost it is about strengthening the local economy. By moving to a sector-reliant delivery model, there is a real risk that some businesses will miss out.

I’m not proposing that it’s one or the other, and recognise that things must adapt and change to remain effective, but it is crucial that a sense of balance is maintained. Yes, we need our locally strong sectors to remain so, but not at the expense of those businesses that operate in different markets. Yes, we need to have clear leadership on those sectors that, as a country, we could and should be leading the world on, but we also have to make sure that those benefits ripple out through the wider economy. The key activity and innovation will be where the two strategies collide – the top down national sector-led approach, meeting the bottom-up local business demands.

This may sound a bit like having your cake and eating it (no we didn’t get dessert on Tuesday), but it is possible and essential in an economy such as we have in Greater Manchester.

As the lead architect of City Deals and someone with a Northern city constituency in Sheffield, it was interesting and reassuring to hear that Mr Clegg seemed to think so too.

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