Sheffield's manufacturing heartlands were once dominated by grey steel, but now they make something more colourful. Sheffield council’s recent push to boost exports has helped one hair dye manufacturer win a six-figure contract to make hair dye for Asian consumers – and it won’t be the last.
“Our initiative is already targeting 60 companies in Sheffield,” city councillor Leigh Bramall says “There are some companies which could export but weren’t [doing so], some export on an ad hoc basis and there are firms with export experience that might want to branch out into new markets”
Councillors from a host of British cities will be in London today for a conference hosted by banking giant JP Morgan and the Brookings Institution to discuss how council bosses can launch more initiatives like the one in Sheffield.
It’s a chance for civic leaders and business experts to hear how their counterparts in cities across the United States have accelerated exports. JP’s joint initiative with Brookings – dubbed the global cities initiative – has already coached leaders from about 30 US cities on export issues to help them compete in the global race. Now it’s the Brits’ turn to gain from that expertise.
“There’s a lot we can learn from US cities,” deputy mayor of London Sir Ed Lister, who will speak at the event, said. “American companies are much more alive to the export market than we are… We need to do more and that’s what this conference is about.”
The UK is the sixth largest exporting nation on earth and second only to the US in service export sales. London accounts for around half of the UK’s service exports – such as finance and professional services. Yet only about 13 per cent of Britain’s goods exports – such as cars and medicines – come from the capital.
“Despite London’s size as a trading centre, there are still ways to diversify,” Peter Kaldes, JP Morgan Chase’s executive director and head of global cities, said. “The city has a very strong financial services sector which has thrived, but it is looking to attract more manufacturers to increase production in London. Everyone has something to learn out of this.”
While today’s event will be as much about exploring new opportunities, it will also be a chance to iron out creases in the UK’s export agenda.
One key issue holding UK cities back is the quality of trade data. HMRC has so far shied away from council requests to calculate trade data at a city level rather than at a county level, forcing authorities to estimate export and import data.
“We’re almost blindfolded trying to find out how well we are doing,” Bramall says. “We have to piece it together from different sources.”
The debate also comes against a backdrop of mounting calls by local authorities for more devolved powers from central government in the wake of last year’s Scottish Referendum. The role regional economies play in an economy is also central to the issue, especially one so skewed towards its capital city London.
“We certainly don’t see ourselves in isolation,” Lister said. “We’ve been a great success but we want the rest of the country to pick up as well. We are totally in support of the work being done to create the northern powerhouse. We work very closely with the core cities. Their success helps us.”
Given the debate over economic regional powers, it’s a timely summit for all sides. “
“UK cities are looking at how to deal with the possibility of more devolved power in an effective way, so the timing of the conference couldn’t be better,” Kaldes said.