HS2 and third runway can ‘relaunch’ UK on global stage

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI

Large-scale infrastructure projects can help the UK show that it wants to “come back onto the global stage”, the director-general of the CBI has claimed.

Carolyn Fairbairn is calling for “a relaunch of the British brand” to shape the UK’s post-Brexit position.

She believes that investment in major projects including HS2 and the third runway at Heathrow are important both for their direct benefits but also for demonstrating the UK’s expertise.

Carolyn Fairbairn, right, met with Hitachi’s executive chairman Nakanishi-san while in Japan (Source: Twitter / CBI)

Fairbairn told TheBusinessDesk.com: “The state of exasperation around Brexit is so high – in business, amongst politicians themselves, but mostly the public – I feel that energy coming full tilt towards us now about ‘okay, what’s next? We cannot go on like this’.

“I was in Japan last week for a meeting of business leaders around the world in advance of the G20. I was talking to many investors in the UK who were saying ‘we still believe in the UK – where are those strong messages?’.

“The door is open for us to do that now. One of the things the CBI will be talking about is that relaunch of the UK and how we get those very strong messages across about our fantastic skills base, our commitment to infrastructure, how we are going to be at the forefront of retraining for the digital revolution.

“I think we’re about to hit a turning point almost borne out of the frustration that we’ve got over Brexit.”

Fairbairn called for political leadership to deal with “the wrecking ball that would be no deal” as she expressed her fears that “irrationality” could see the UK crash out of the European Union next week while on a visit to the West Midlands this week.

One consequence of Brexit has been the way it has dominated political action and energy for nearly three years.

“We do remain concerned that Brexit is sucking the oxygen out of the priorities that we all need to see progress on,” said Fairbairn.

Large-scale infrastructure projects, which often attract significant opposition because of the cost, disruption and impact involved, become more difficult for a distracted administration to drive forward.

With the Government under pressure on several fronts, does she think it will hold its nerve and remain fully committed to HS2?

“HS2 has had a bad press recently, both as a company and in terms of its proposition,” said Fairbairn.

“But I would go further. I’d say it’s part of this relaunch of the British brand on the global stage. we need to be able to prove to the world that we can do these big infrastructure projects well.

“The third runway at Heathrow has taken far, far too long, and the same is true of HS2.

“Government must sort out HS2’s problems, make sure it has the right leadership, make sure it has control of its costs. But that idea of connectivity across the UK is so fundamental to inclusive growth that we have to get it right.”

Inclusive growth is a theme that is being carried forward by several of England’s metro mayors.

The 2017 cohort, led by Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Andy Street in the West Midlands, will soon be beginning the final 12 months of their term and the CBI believes they have been a big success.

Carolyn Fairbairn (top, left) meeting regional employers at Dudley College (Source: Twitter / Lowell Williams)

“We are huge supporters of the the new metro mayors,” said Fairbairn, who was on a visit to the West Midlands. “It’s been very refreshing to see how apolitical they have been – they are champions of their region, and not champions of their local party. There are lessons to be learned by Westminster from how our metro mayors are working.

“The second thing that we have seen is that they are collaborating very well with business. So if you take Andy Street in the West Midlands, the work on the regional industrial strategy has been really exciting. It has been genuinely focused on what the West Midlands needs to be able to be a global winner in the fourth industrial revolution.”

The local industrial strategy for the West Midlands will be launched imminently with the CBI wanting it to be launchpad of the next phase for the elected mayors.

She said: “What we’d like to see now as part of this relaunch of industrial strategy is the proper coming to fruition of what devolved powers could look like and how they could really work in the interest of local communities – and Andy has been a great pioneer.”

While Brexit is expected to continue to dominate for the coming months, the opportunities presented to British businesses by generational changes to the global economy are the cause for much optimism.

Fairbairn said: “I’m very excited about the potential for the UK to position itself brilliantly in the fourth industrial revolution and really create well paid, high productivity jobs across the country.

“We are seeing tech investment coming into this country at very high levels. Yes, there has been some pausing for Brexit, but actually that kind of productivity investment and investment in advanced manufacturing is proceeding very, very strongly.

“We are the fintech capital of the world. We are fantastic in the renewable sector, and in advanced manufacturing. These are all bright, bright spots.

“There are a few things we have to get right. We have to get our skills and and training right, we’re not there yet, and we have already talked about our infrastructure,

“But if we can get through Brexit, we can get those fundamentals right.

“I feel very optimistic about the ability to attract investment to this country, create more high-paying jobs and in 10 years’ time to look back and say that yes, we have made a real difference to inclusive growth, we have brought those parts of the country along with us that have got left behind.

“So for me that’s the sunlit uplands that we need to get to.”