Lessons for Liverpool from my trip to Washington

White House

Me at the back door of the White House

None of us will be surprised just how well known Liverpool is in Washington. No-one will be surprised to know that it was far better known than any city in the UK outside London and Edinburgh. No-one will be surprised to know that next to no-one knew anything about Halton, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral or Knowsley. No-one will be surprised to know that our best brand is the Beatles and our next best brand is ‘soccer’. What may surprise everyone is the fact that although people knew of us very few people knew anything about us. This means that as far as looking at the potential for two way trade no-one had thought anything about what services we could provide to them or what services they could provide to us; no-one had been thinking about what products they could buy off us or sell to us. In other words we had our foot in the door but were nowhere near getting across the threshold of consciousness or decision making that could lead to trade.
Interestingly in talks with both Cities and the State Department (the equivalent of the foreign office) it is clear that they are increasingly looking to city/city links to stimulate trade in addition to their normal country to country UKTI type activity. This was confirmed when I spoke to Ambassador Michael Froman who is President Obama’s special adviser on trade. (Incidentally I warned him of UK concerns about TTPI and in particular how it might impact on the Health Service in the UK).
Without exception the public sector people that I dealt with from central, State and local governments used independent business led operations to develop trade links because they realised that they had not got the expertise ‘in house’.
Disturbingly not one of the Mayors I spoke to or the heads of international affairs or commerce in the big cities had any idea that Liverpool has a US office. These are influential people in big economies and are message just is not getting home.
One thing that was repeated time and time again is that attempts to develop two way trade with China have been almost totally unsuccessful. The Chinese are looking at ‘buying’ investment opportunities in both the developed and developing worlds on which they will get long term income. An example of this is the development near Manchester Airport which will be extremely lucrative for them in the long run. They want to sell us things in great volumes. What they do not want to do is buy much from us unless it is extremely complex or a luxury of prestigious item (Jaguars and Whisky!) The American experience corresponds so much to our own in Greater Liverpool. All we have got from 14 years of long-haul trips to Shanghai is small beer stuff.
Just to remind you I was not at the US Conference of Mayors on behalf of Liverpool but, of course, looked at the potential for UCLG assisting with the development of city-city trade links using Liverpool City region as an example. I then looked into some more detail at who might come.
Firstly, I excluded small cities for who it would not be cost effective to come to us or for us to service a visit from them. An exception to this was North Carolina where, in recognition of the fact that most cities are small they do trade work through a coalition of local councils.
Secondly, I excluded cities where is seemed unlikely that there would be any synergy between our regions in terms of commerce, services or universities.
That led to a number of large cities that are very interested in establishing long-term city region to city region activity which could be beneficial.
Cities such as Oklahoma, Chicago, Houston and Boston and city coalitions in Oregon and North Carolina are very interested in looking not at twinning events; not at sister city activity or things like that. These are things of the past. Sending a Mayor or Leader to open something or shake hands is by itself bad value for money unless it was part of something. That something could be the long-term relationship between the public sectors in two city regions where they could continue to develop trade and educational activities because there were needs and opportunities that could be met by cross state trade.
What I learnt has led me to some immediate conclusions:
1. That we need to re-define what our offices in USA, New Delhi and China are actually doing because when I travel to China and the US I see no sign that their presence is known and that their work is effective.
2. That we probably need to forget China and try and establish relationships with countries that want two-way trade rather one way.
3. Those countries are places like Mexico, Turkey, Malaysia, i.e. the Countries just outside the BRICs which are relatively ignored.
4. We ought to be cleverer at looking at trends. For example I was amazed that I knew so little about the massive growth and potential of Mozambique although I seemed to know more than most when I brought the High Commissioner to Liverpool.
5. We need to focus our spend more carefully. £10,000 would have enabled us to have a stand, send out an officer and a Councillors and really make an impact at an important event in a major market. (There is another event of similar size with 1,000 Mayors plus in June). We only need to develop a relationship with 2/3 partner city regions for that money to be very well spent and we should be able to get most of that money from the businesses that would benefit.
6. That is a much better use of £10,000 than spending it on a champagne bash for people in Liverpool where there are no clear outputs and outcomes and clearly no new business resulting
7. We have made a major mistake in closing down the private sector board which advised us on trade and commerce and a further one in moving Liverpool Vision in to council offices. None of the councillors or officers who over-see this work have run as much as a chip shop. We need advising us at the highest level people who know how to export and build trade links in an operation which is clearly private sector led and at arms-length from the Council.
I will be passing my new contacts and thoughts over to our staff and hope that they can do something with them. Liverpool has great, great opportunities out there which it is unlikely that out stolid, inward looking approach will enable us to take advantage of!

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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