Cheshire needs a new, strong and unified business voice to ensure it doesn’t lose ground to the neighbouring big cities of Liverpool and Manchester.
That was the conclusive theme of a round table debate involving winners of this year’s Cheshire Business Awards, staged by the Chester Chronicle series at Chester Cathedral.
A number of the award winners came together to celebrate their success at Oddfellows in Chester, along with senior representatives from leading law firm SAS Daniels - sponsors of the prestigious annual awards night.
The meeting was chaired by Trinity Mirror Regional Head of Editorial Partnerships John Thompson.
And there was a resounding view that Cheshire - while rich in talents and business assets - is facing major challenges from its metropolitan neighbours which can only be tackled by a new single group to co-ordinate, communicate and and win key business and government funding for projects.
The issue was raised by David Barlow, whose electrical company Barlows UK has won a string of awards over the years, the latest coming in the shape of Cheshire Employer of the Year.
Said the head of the Malpas based company: “I have felt the power of Greater Manchester.
“Liverpool have now done a mini Manchester with skills and businesses.
“They’ve got their own hub, which is Wirral, Liverpool, Halton and a few other places - all gathered together. And a lady I spoke told us how successful it was. She said because we have got the hub, we have got some money - a million pounds.
“We are not together enough to apply for anything. So we need to get together to have our own Cheshire and Warrington hub. And we need to start applying for money and we need a central team that businesses can contact.”
He added: “We can see there is going to be a skills drain for us so we need it, so that these people are switched on and can bond the businesses with skills, and awards.
“It’s a long journey - but we are going to win.”
Colin Brew, the chief executive of the North Wales and East Cheshire Chamber of Commerce, which represents 600 businesses and who was recently declared Cheshire Business Person of the Year, agreed with those sentiments.
He said: “I know everything that you have just said is absolutely right. We suffer from having three local authorities all doing three things very, very differently. And the cohesion just isn’t there.
“You have the Chester and District Business Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses), the Cheshire Professionals. And we’ve tried on a couple of occasions this year to initiate a round the table discussion - a ‘Let’s leave our baggage outside the door, we come in here with a blank piece of paper and we invest in the future of Chester’.
“That has proved almost impossible.
“And I could scale that out to our region. As I say, we have three local authorities all doing things a different way and not prepared to say ‘Look we are getting left behind by Liverpool and Manchester’.
“But we all say: ‘Look we need to act with one voice here’ no matter how much you like it or don’t like it or however parochial your outlook is.
“I appreciate there is a parochial outlook to Chester and to certain towns and locations. But we have to be bigger and better than that.”
Jeremy Orrell, partner and head of SAS Daniels corporate team, stressed Cheshire needs to use some of its own professional services more - instead of looking outside the county.
He said: “I worked 25 years in Manchester and you’ve got the big pull of Manchester.
“You didn’t have it to the same extent in Liverpool - but you do now and have had for a decade at least. That’s been transformed.
“But it’s this ‘What is Cheshire and Warrington?’ And we’ve had this conversation before. I was watching the Politics Show on TV the other Sunday and they were talking about the Mayor of Cheshire. They were saying of Warrington, ‘Well do they go with the Mayor of Cheshire or the Mayor of Liverpool’, you know? And Warrington has always been a bit independent like that hasn’t it?
“Personally if I was them I’d go with Cheshire because you could get lost with Liverpool, couldn’t you?
“We also had a bit of experience regarding professional firms. We try to engage with local authorities, because local authorities seem to be very keen to push their work out of Cheshire.
“When it came to legal services, accountancy services, other services, it was using firms in London, in Manchester or in Liverpool - when there’s a lot of good firms here.
“So it’s been difficult and I think getting together, you can show that as different types of business, we have all got something to offer in this locality.
“It is easy to lose that.”
His colleague Kaye Whitby, partner and head of SAS Daniels Chester office, added: “Chester has been the author of its own misfortune in many ways.
“Obviously I can only speak from the professional community. We’ve been in Chester now coming up ten years and it’s only about now that people will accept us as being part of Chester.
“We were in Chester - but not of Chester.
“Certain businesses were quite obstructive, because we were coming in and trying to do things differently.
“But I think there’s been a real shift, because some of the people I’m talking about, who I have experiences with, they were maybe getting towards the end of their career and they had perhaps always done it like that.
“Now I think there is a lot of new blood coming in. I think we have got a good mix.
“Certainly as a business, we see our young trainees coming in, do a training contract with us. But then they are attracted by the bright lights of Liverpool and Manchester. So there is a challenge to keep young people out of those areas.”
Peter Hartwell, chief executive of Everybody Sport and Recreation, who won the Apprenticeship Award, stressed Cheshire needed to confidently capitalise on its own identity and unique strengths.
He said: “It’s interesting to listen to this and about the powerhouses of Liverpool and Manchester.
“I don’t think we perhaps ever could become a Liverpool or a Manchester. They’ve been doing what they are doing for a few hundred years and with that industrial might that sits behind them.
“What is special about this part of the world is Chester. And we should look at the opportunities which that brings with it, rather than trying to become a new Manchester or a mini Liverpool.
“We are where we are and there is a culture around this that isn’t Liverpool or Manchester. And actually we should be looking to exploit that - rather than trying to be something that we probably never will become.
“There’s a danger we will almost lose that distinctiveness, that uniqueness, that makes us Cheshire.
“Yes, let’s try and learn some of the lessons from Liverpool and Manchester and good practice and how they join it up. But I don’t think we should be trying to emulate them. We are different.”
Carolyn Bruce, representing Innovation Award winner Chester Cathedral, focused on the battle for tourism.
She said: “We don’t want to be like Manchester or Liverpool but at the same time we are competing with them. You know, a big chunk of our activity is tourism and in Cheshire we have so much.
“But we are still losing out to Manchester and Liverpool.
“So there is just a lot of work that we have to do. So how do we go about getting that going?”
Said Colin Brew: “There’s a sense of confusion in terms of what Cheshire and Warrington is, as we have talked about.
“We’ve got five chambers of commerce in Cheshire and Warrington. How confusing and ridiculous is that?
“There is one example of the level of confusion and complexity to what actually should be quite a simplistic geography. And a fantastic geography in terms of potential.
“Maybe in the fullness of time we could create a Cheshire Chamber of Commerce - which is probably exactly what we need.
“I think in Chester, certainly from that tourism and hospitality element, we are only just waking up. At five o’clock in Chester we all go home. It gets dark, the students come out and then it starts again the next day.
“There are too many closed groups in Chester. You know, ‘This is us. And that’s you. And you’re over there’. And we just need to drop all that nonsense.
“Forget our grounds, forget where we want to be - because this is about creating a legacy for this city and its future, isnt it?”
Following the lunch event, Kaye Whitby said: “It was great to meet the winners of Cheshire Business Awards 2016 at the winners’ lunch. This year’s awards attracted an extremely high calibre of entries and each award was truly well deserved. The awards showcase the diverse range of talent Cheshire has to offer making it a vibrant place to live and work.”
Jeremy Orrell added: “We’ve supported the awards for many years and once again have been delighted to share in the success of business community in Cheshire. Cheshire attracts a range of excellent businesses both large and small. It’s truly inspirational to see the business community come together to celebrate its diversity and success.”