Northern Lights: Inclusive growth are watchwords for more powerful, competitive city

Saudi officials and Sheffield business leaders at DLA Piper in St Pauls Sheffield
Saudi officials and Sheffield business leaders at DLA Piper in St Pauls Sheffield

As weeks go last week was, for me at least, a good one. Of course it had its usual ups and downs but three things stand out.

The first was “breaking ground” with the boss of HSBC for their new huge offices in the centre of Sheffield. It’s a slightly archaic tradition – a group of people with a spade on a building site covered with huge 21st century construction machinery – but the symbolism is what matters.

What would be the view of our city that would sum up the qualities of Sheffield?

A global bank enthusiastically committing to our city. They called it the “deal of the decade”. And while it may seem perfectly natural for HSBC – the Midland of old – to stay, it was something we never took for granted until the deal was done.

The second was a delegation from Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as sometimes with these delegations you can end up with the junior marketing officer. Not this one.

They were seriously “high end” as I spoke to them at the offices of DLA Piper in Sheffield. In the morning of their visit they had seen our 19th century Cutlers’ Hall and the City Region’s modern Advanced Manufacturing Park.

Conscious that they may have felt we had shown them the past and the present (with a glimpse of the future) I made the point that what we had really shown them was our strength in depth. We had shown them a city that has always invented things, innovated and made products of high quality.

The variety of top-rated Sheffield companies round that lunch table made the point far more eloquently than I could. Also, bear in mind that apart from London this delegation only chose to visit one other city – Sheffield.

The third was standing in the Mayor of Liverpool’s office with the five “core cities” of the Northern Powerhouse – ourselves, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. The view was a stunning panorama of the River Mersey – admittedly, the weather was fantastic.

The view summed up the qualities and history of the city, and I was left wondering what would be the view of our city that would sum up the qualities of Sheffield.

I found it hard to decide on a single view. Should it be the countryside, or the view of the city from the countryside as you approach? Should it be an iconic shot of Forgemasters? Should it be the new and striking buildings of our universities? Should it be the Peace Gardens with new corporate offices nearby? Should it be the many varied faces of Sheffield? I could go on.

But all of this to me is a huge positive. We now have a city that is good at many things, is made up of many qualities but, in many respects most importantly, is not known just for one type of business – one type of economy – because when you are you are very vulnerable.

It was that reflection that connected my week. A global bank committing to Sheffield, a Saudi delegation wanting to see our city and its businesses – not just one business or sector – and the now near-impossibility of pigeon-holing Sheffield.

But if all that is good there is a balance that is being struck. Global investors, an improving and successful economy and new businesses are good as the people of our city benefit. That is why the phrase “Inclusive Growth” is fast becoming the new goal.

And so my week ended with a debate and discussion at the Partnership Board for Sheffield about just that. Our schools are doing well, our wages are growing, our economy is getting bigger and that is translating now and in the future into as many people as possible being included in that growth.

Put simply, they need to feel the benefits. I do not subscribe to the view that some people don’t want to be part of success – nobody aspires to be poor!

As we as a nation move into some interesting months and years ahead – and this is not a party political point – I confidently predict that making extra efforts to include many more people in the economic success that the country enjoys will be a constant theme.

For some it will be an issue of social morality. For others it just makes common sense. There is now a body of evidence that shows that focusing on basic skills is as important for how a town and city succeeds as is focusing on the high end of skills. Whatever the reason, it needs to be done and it needs to be done relentlessly. We are doing that in this city.

So, coming back to Sheffield, this is just the sort of city that can and will want to crack this challenge.

And while new buildings, new investors, a new economy are great, just think how powerful our message will be – how competitive we will be – with inclusive growth’ as our defining quality.