What’s The Future of London? – Paul Drechsler CBE Interview

Article by The Business Influencer

Paul Drechsler CBE was appointed the Chair of London First in 2018. He is also a Board Member of Greencore and the International Chamber of Commerce ICC(UK), the Chancellor of Teesside University, a member of the Global Advisory Board Of Trinity College Dublin and the Advisory Council Of Step up to Serve.

As Chair of London First – how has COVID 19 affected the City?

London First is a business campaigning organisation with a mission to make London the best capital city in the world in which to do business, work and live. It galvanises businesses and institutions that are passionate about London to bring pragmatic solutions to the capital’s challenges.

Over the past 25 years our achievements include the creation of the role of Mayor of London, launching the capital’s first inward investment agency, Think London and we helped to create Teach First. Our priority at this time is to ensure London makes the best possible recovery from Covid-19 working with the Mayor and via the Government’s Transition Board.

Which sectors have been the most affected?

Not surprisingly because of its size, population density, high rise buildings and mass transport system it has been one of the most challenged cities in the world in dealing with COVID-19. These challenges are similar to those in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast; the sectors hit hardest are aviation, hospitality, tourism and a thriving Arts and Culture sector so vital to making our cities successful.

While there has been much discussion about people working from home we need to acknowledge all those people who have been travelling to work every day to keep our country safe and our economy moving. For example the NHS, the Logistics and Food Industry that has managed to keep Britain fed. I would make particular mention of the people of Transport for London who have done a fantastic job maintaining a clean and smooth service.

What could have been done differently with regards to how COVID has been tackled by the Government?

It’s easy to be critical of government, there is much that could’ve been done better. However this is an unprecedented crisis that most people will not have been prepared for, much less have the skills to deal with. In the world of business most of us have seen our way through several crises in our lifetime. A crisis is not a campaign. It is an immensely difficult situation that requires; a very honest and realistic assessment of the current situation, a clear picture of what the future / success looks like, and clarity on the actions that need to be taken and delivered.

Clear consistent messages and communication is critical to success. This includes transparency over how any restrictions imposed are expected to reduce transmission rates and clarity on the criteria for lifting the measures as rates fall. To exit this crisis requires a combination of dynamic, readily available and high functioning test, track and trace, improving treatments for those who are hospitalised, and finally a vaccine that enables us to return to normal living. In the meantime, the Government needs to continue supporting businesses which cannot trade properly because of restrictions, for example extending buisness rates and VAT reliefs into 2021.

What are your views on the tier system and how has it been interpreted in London?

There is a rationale and a logic to the three tier system and at its heart is a real desire to try and keep as much of the economy functioning as possible at any one time, based on health-risk assessment. If tough action now means we can save more lives and avoid a more severe lockdown later then businesses will see the case for the decision as preventing a worse alternative. However for many firm struggling to get back on their feet further restrictions are a severe blow.

What are your views on Brexit and how does London First think it is going to affect the CITY, as currently no one talks about the services element of a deal?

My views on Brexit are well-known and well documented. It is a long time since I put any energy into the argument for remaining in the EU; I accepted the outcome of the referendum immediately. However I continue to believe that is in the best interest of the economy, the nation, and the next generation to have the best possible trade deal with the EU. Anyone who understands the macro economics of the UK knows that this should comprehensively meet the needs of our brilliant services sector.

There are plenty of other cities and countries around the world that will want to do better than the UK and will seize opportunities created by Brexit to strengthen their position. In my view the financial services sector will continue to remain a great strength of London and the UK. Two issues that have not been given enough airtime are the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and data. We need a simple system for an EU-27 wide framework to ensure that qualifications can be recognised with minimal bureaucracy.

This is in the UK’s interest, as we have and attract a higher percentage of EEA workers in regulated professions  (lawyers, doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, dentists, etc.) and because we trade more in services with the EU and depend on being able to move UK workers to EU domiciled projects at short notice. Meanwhile the flow of data is vital for the UK and EU economies especially for SMEs who lack both the financial and human resources to support additional compliance activity.

As a well recognised NED and ex CBI president – what is the importance of a NED in todays business climate?

I have the privilege of being chair of judges for the Sunday Times Peel Hunt NED Awards which recognise outstanding non-exec directors in our boardrooms. I believe that business is a force for good and that non-exec directors play a very important role in guiding company purpose, vision, strategy and culture. Covid19 has shone a light on the absolutely brilliant work by management teams and employees cross country, combined with professional and steady stewardship of companies by professional boards of directors.

Does business have a voice in todays turbulent environment?

Absolutely, yes. The business community is brilliantly represented by business organisations like London First, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses, as well as many trade organisations covering specific interest of different sectors. So, there is no question in my mind the business has a voice in today’s turbulent environment. In an age of populism the more important question is whether or not the voice of business is listened to with the appreciation, value and respect it deserves as a creator of jobs and growth, leading the charge on our post-Covid recovery.

What are your views on the levelling up agenda and do you think the industrial strategy is still relevant?

I spent six years as Chairman of Teach First; focused on ending education inequality by recruiting and placing brilliant teachers in classrooms in the most disadvantaged schools across the UK. I am 100% in favour of levelling up when it comes to education and health and I’m excited about the possibility of creating opportunity in life for everyone.

I am not supportive of a levelling up narrative that increases division between the four nations of the UK, or pits north against south and tries to do down London. London’s continued success is vital for the whole country; the capital accounts for nearly one quarter of gross value added – the value of goods and services produced – and it generates £38 billion tax surplus. No leveling up agenda or Global Britain ambitions is possible if London fails.

As we emerge from COVID-19 it is more important than ever that we have an exciting and compelling vision for the future for the UK including for every place around the country. We need a very clear plan of action to enable us to achieve the fastest possible recovery, and to ensure achieve our goals and long-term vision. The source of funds to deliver these actions to make progress is economic growth. The prime source of this growth will come from our businesses and universities enabled by brilliant government policy. This is the essence of industrial strategy and we need it more than ever.

Finally, what does the next 12 months look like for London and the UK?

The next 6-12 months will be unbelievably tough for all of us. London has overcome wars, pandemics and recessions before. Supported by the right government policies it will again. The big question is not whether London survives but whether we are taking the right actions now to ensure it thrives – for the benefit of all the UK.

However I am confident and optimistic about the long-term opportunities and possibilities for the UK in a rapidly changing world. My strongest reason for optimism is the attitude, values and beliefs of the next generation. Our immediate priority post Covid is to deal with Climate change – this gives the next generation their chance to succeed.

Interview by Ninder Johal DL, CEO of The Business Influencer (https://thebusinessinfluencer.co.uk/), The Signature Awards (https://nachural.co.uk/the-signature-awards-birmingham/) and The Nachural Group (https://nachural.co.uk/).

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