UK regions need “critical powers” to ensure cities outside of London, Oxford and Cambridge can receive investment and level up the country, the mayor of the West Midlands has said.
During a panel debate at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference, Andy Street said that regions currently do not have access to the Government’s crucial research and development (R&D) money.
He told the panel: “If I had the Chancellor and the Business Secretary in the audience, I would say trailblaze a devolution deal.
“Bestow on the regions some critical powers in this area.
“We have no influence over government planning in the Department for International Trade, we have no cash to subsidise investment, unlike Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And our skills devolution only goes so far.
“We do not control the public R&D money at all. Every time we want investment, we have to go to the Government to seek it as a small bidding war.
“If you look at any of the cities beyond Oxford, Cambridge and London, they have a very small share of that public R&D money.
“You will not level up if you keep putting all your innovation cash in the same places.”
The comments came during the CBI’s Go For Growth conference, following a speech from the Prime Minister which focused on innovation and touched on the issue of glaring gaps in the domestic workforce.
The UK’s labour shortages were an important topic during the conference, with a number of business leaders saying how it has affected them.
Dame Sharon White, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said during a separate panel debate that businesses are facing extra costs because the labour market is tight and employers face pressure to lift staff wages.
She said companies like John Lewis are battling against a tidal wave of over-50s leaving the workforce since the pandemic.
“I am not sure that there has been enough of a conversation about the thousands of missing workers in the UK,” she told the audience.
“The fact that we have lost one million people in the labour market since the pandemic has got massive implications.”
She added that John Lewis has offered its employees – referred to as partners – flexible retirement for a “long time”, which helps the retailer hold on to over-50s staff for longer.
The UK chairman of energy giant Shell, David Bunch, echoed the sentiment that a smaller workforce drags down on productivity.
He said: “One of the most immediate challenges is that things aren’t getting done.
“If you take the energy system, it has often been reported that building electric charging networks is taking far too long, and that building offshore wind farms takes 12 years on average.
“Getting things done not only requires the policy framework to enable things to be accelerated, but a skilled workforce.
“We are focusing on a dedicated fund to bring in and reskill those people back into the offshore and renewable work.
“If we don’t do that, we are simply not going to have the answer to enable us to get this work done.”
Others said that businesses should focus on offering flexible working options for over-50s who are more likely to have caring responsibilities.