England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development, Democracy, devolution and governance, Transport and infrastructure

Fast paced changes but is it fast enough? A call for action from Coventry City Council

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Photo by Georgi Kyurpanov on Unsplash

Andy Williams, Director of Business, Investment and Culture at Coventry City Council reflects on some of the big changes across the nation in recent weeks (and even years) and what, throughout it all, this means for his local authority who are spearheading opportunities for big technological changes right now. 

Recently, we saw the biggest shake-up of Whitehall since Brexit. Four new Departments were unveiled:

  1. The Department for Business and Trade
  2. The Department of Science, Innovation
  3. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero
  4. And, a slimmed-down Department for Culture, Media and Sport

While many commentators have remarked on the timing of changes introduced less than two years from a general election, it is clear that this machinery of government changes make sense.

The unfolding climate catastrophe and the war in Ukraine justify a standalone department focused on our long-term energy supply, accelerating the transition to net zero, and reducing our short-term energy bills. We urgently need a single department driving scientific endeavour and technological innovation into meaningful benefits and growth opportunities. And a department bringing together business and trade is imperative if we are to secure investment, jobs and inclusive growth.

As Ministers and Civil Servants get to work in these new departments, it is the Treasury they will be looking to as their ultimate masters. The extent to which any department can deliver its objectives is often so much about resourcing. The news that the Ministry of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been barred by the Treasury from announcing capital spending is a worrying development. Reducing economic divides will be made so much more difficult if the local government’s sponsor department is restricted from intervening.

The report in the Financial Times that any new capital spending decision “however small, must now be referred to HMT before approval and the department is not allowed to make any decisions itself” comes hot on the heels of the concerns around the delays, the lack of transparency, as well as the outcome of the allocation of the recent Levelling Up Funds.

Despite this, there are two key areas incoming Ministers and civil servants in these fledgling departments must focus on in order to drive success.

Firstly, collaborative working. Government operating in silos has been a longstanding criticism of Whitehall. In local government, we are more agile, collaborative and comfortable working across teams. The success of dealing with the pandemic came through collaboration – Whitehall must understand that they need to learn from this and make that default practice. New departments are very well, but their success depends on working together. The era of territorial empire-building and fiefdoms must end.

Secondly, in the absence of additional spending, we need the convening power of government to be turbo-charged. In Coventry, we have a long heritage in the automotive industry, and we now have the opportunity to build on our strength in automotive research, design and manufacturing to transform ourselves into a home for clean tech, skilled jobs, and economic prosperity. The West Midlands Gigafactory at Coventry Airport is the biggest Gigafactory site to get planning permission and is currently the only immediately deliverable site in the UK.

But we need to create the conditions and incentives to make the industry viable, and this is where the Government must engage, and support. While we have identified a site and secured planning permission, there are still barriers to securing investment. While subsidies are always key to kickstarting investment in fledgling industries, we need to secure a highly skilled workforce. Investors want to see the “red carpet of government” rolled out for them. The automotive sector is a global industry, and boardrooms are making investment decisions that could fundamentally impact the future industry. Against the global headwinds we face, there is a real risk that unless we move quickly, we will lose the edge, and lose out to other countries.

The Prime Minister also recently announced that the second Global Investment Summit will take place in October. Job creation and economic growth are fundamental to our prosperity, and that will be enhanced by securing overseas investment. I hope the global investor community will continue to see the UK as a fertile place to invest. In Coventry, we’re open for Business all year round – don’t wait till October to pay us a visit!

You can follow Coventry City Council at @coventrycc and Andy at @AndyWilliamsCov on Twitter.



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