I returned last week from a key overseas trade visit as lord mayor, to China and Hong Kong.
I was accompanied by a number of City firms, and because the trip followed the G20 Summit, held just before our arrival there, all of them expected an exciting and illuminating visit. One of the big topics was the delayed decision on Hinkley Point C, so I was delighted to hear news of the government’s green light when I touched down at Heathrow on Thursday.
The decision was most welcome. Quite aside from providing a reliable and low-carbon source of energy for generations, pressing ahead sent an important signal to the world that the UK is very much open for business. Yes, the decision to reassess the deal took most of us by surprise, but it is a sensitive, expensive project that the new government wanted to be absolutely sure about. The important thing is that we can now get on with building the plant itself – something that would not have been possible without vital foreign investment.
Other than Hinkley Point, the other defining theme of my trip was the immense positivity that our Chinese friends and partners had towards the UK-China business relationship. With their optimistic outlook, they saw Brexit not primarily as a challenge but as an immense opportunity to create new links and explore new trade. This mirrors my own views and those of many others in the City.
Although the diverse groups that make up the City all have their own views on what constitutes a successful withdrawal from the EU, there is more than enough common ground to ensure that we speak with one voice. We will call for concrete outcomes that will benefit businesses across the UK: the Single Market, passporting and continued access to talent. On top of that, some Chinese institutions suggested it would be essential to establish frequent constructive dialogues between the UK and China’s financial sector. That too sounds like a good idea.
Against the backdrop of Brexit, we heard a number of positive messages on future cooperation between the UK and China. Many Chinese businesses still see the UK as one of the best places in Europe to invest and do business, and are looking for opportunities in many areas including insurance, shipping and asset management.
As one prominent government official said during my time there, China has previously viewed the UK as part of Europe, but after Brexit, the UK can stand out as a vital part of the world.
During the roundtable with Xicheng financial district government, leading Chinese economist Ma Jun praised the work of successive lord mayors in strengthening the UK-China partnership, and went as far as suggesting that Xicheng should appoint its own lord mayor-style special representative to promote its financial sector. The City Corporation will offer its support in getting this idea off the ground.
As for the UK, we already know the commercial influence of our Chinese friends, through Hinkley Point and numerous other investments. As the financial and commercial heart of both Britain and Europe, the City of London is a natural partner for Chinese investors and businesses that want to expand their global presence. Let’s keep reiterating this message.