Visit reveals potential for trade with US



Last week I visited the USA on a private business trip to Philadelphia. My objective has been to create a resilient link between my own PR firm in the North-East and a similar sized firm in North East America.

Aside from being successful in finding a great fit that can benefit both parties, I was struck by the growth and energy in the US economy at the moment.

In addition to the business element of the trip I got the chance to talk to students at the respected Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and to meet with officials who run the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

The US economy is booming. Growth is at an unprecedented 4% and the City of Philadelphia has bounced back after many years of decline. The city faced the type of industrial change that we in the North East were familiar with until very recently. The loss of job opportunities in the steel, ship building and coal industries in Pennsylvania and changes to the inner city led to a diminished population, increased crime and less social cohesion. However, I witnessed a city that had clawed its way back. West Philadelphia is now a trendy multi-cultural mix of local residents from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and ‘Ivy Leaguers’ from the University of Pennsylvania. It is bustling with restaurants, shops, tech start-ups, galleries and colourful housing. The craft brewery at Dock Street, was a particular joy, offering a great menu in a restaurant surrounded by the paraphernalia of the brewery, cloaked in the aroma of fine beer and a buzzing atmosphere.

Elsewhere in the City, investment is everywhere. Postcards of the City skyline that are only a few years old are already out of date, as at least three new skyscrapers, two from the communications firm Comcast, have each taken the honour of the City’s tallest building in a constantly changing and growing downturn district.

At the former Navy Yard, 20 million square feet of former shipbuilding and repair facilities are being transformed by a development corporation that started its work in 2004. It aims to deliver 30,000 jobs and attract $3 billion of investment to the city and is more than half way towards its objective. Big companies, such as Urban Outfitters and GSK have huge facilities on the site and start-up space is available at rates that would be competitive in even the most down at heel parts of our region.  Although the site is smaller and the sector opportunities different, I found the experience particularly useful in my capacity as an unpaid director of our own South Tees Development Corporation in Redcar.

Everyone I met was fascinated by the Brexit process and the opportunities it presents to the UK. The business people I met see the UK as an advanced industrial country and are interested in the possibility of more meaningful partnership with us. Whatever the outcome of the autumn negotiations, it is a fact of law that the UK will leave the EU on 29th March next year. This will free up our politicians to embrace new ideas and to rid themselves from the rigid rules of the EU. For American business that wants to sell us things, that is an opportunity, but for us the ability for more reciprocal trade should not be understated.

Halfway through the trip I met my objective and I agreed an informal arrangement with a PR firm in Philadelphia; they will help promote our clients in the USA and we will reciprocate in the UK.

I also came across policies that we could emulate in the public sector, but which would currently be in breach of the very restrictive and formulaic EU contracting process through OJEU.

For example, at least one public organisation tenders using a light touch ‘Total Impact Contract’. This involves assessing the contracts for local impact on jobs and the economy. I know many politicians in the North East would love to be able to spend public money in this way, thus forcing larger firms to either have a meaningful presence here or duck out of the process in favour of local firms that keep the rewards and befits in the region.

Then there are the ‘Ed and Med’ contracts. Local contracts offered for both the universities and the hospitals, which want to share the tendering process in order to both reduce administrative costs and to specify local suppliers, helping those firms to scale up.

Furthermore, I witnessed the results of zoned planning consents that were much less rigid for building sized under 100,000 square feet. The result was speedier investment and shorter timescales. With buildings going from concept to occupation and the delivering the economic activity they housed much more quickly. There is nothing to stop this policy being embraced in the UK now.

My visit was privately-funded and had the happy by-product of seeing my daughter who is taking a Post-Graduate Degree at the University. However, I felt it was me who was doing the learning. On a small scale I intend to apply some of the thinking to Recognition PR. On a larger scale it re-enforced my own recent political journey that took me from advocating Remain in the Brexit vote to seeing the process as more of an opportunity than a threat.

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