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Last week Labour leader Ed Miliband promised "the biggest devolution of power to England's great towns and cities in a hundred years" in a move which shifted Labour's focus on local economic development away from the 'old' administrative regions as in RDA-days towards 'city and county regions'.

Speaking in Birmingham, Miliband said that he wants cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol to become powerful urban dynamos, taking control of budgets for skills, housing, transport and the Work Programme so to boost their economies.

If you get a chance have a look at a book that is causing something of a sensation among both economists and politicians across the world.

Thomas Piketty who is professor at École d'économie de Paris (the Paris School of Economics) has just published Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press).

Drawing on two centuries of economic data and other sources he concludes, not surprisingly, that the rich do indeed become richer.

This will be no surprise and many will argue so what?

I'm still trying to figure out how the Peugeot 308 won the car of the year title instead of the Nissan Qashqai, BMW i3 or Mercedes S class. News that the firm plans to develop the DS brand as a premium brand leave me further scratching my head in disbelief. For that's exactly what the new PSA Peugeot Citroen boss Carlos Tavares is planning to do.

To be fair to Tavares, he has some good ideas in his new "Back in the Race" plan, notably in hacking away at the hugely overblown product portfolio and boosting expansion in the Asian growth markets. The plan aims to achieve a 2% operating margin in the operating division by 2018 and 5% beyond that.


lng-tanks-in-barcelona.jpg

The focus of the Ukraine crisis has shifted in recent weeks away from the Crimean peninsula and onto Russia's seemingly parallel strategy to destabilize the Kiev regime through military threat in the east of the country and economic pressure by a near doubling of the price it charges Ukraine for its gas.

This mini-energy crisis is set to escalate, as the Russian gas pipelines to Ukraine are essentially a transit network to the West, notably Germany and Italy. Any interruption in supplies will have an impact beyond Ukraine.

We've been here before, of course. However, since Russia last cut off supplies to its neighbour, back in 2009, the EU has spent huge sums reinforcing interconnector links across Europe. By reconfiguring flows of gas between countries, the EU now hopes to be in better shape to cope if Russia decides to turn off the tap again, at least in the short term (although the Baltic countries remain vulnerable).

However, the Ukraine crisis has made the challenge of weaning itself off Russian gas, and to diversify sources of supply, a major priority for the EU.

Much has been made of the potential offered by shale gas as a new source of supply, but fracking is not universally accepted across Europe, and where it is, the exploration and development of shale reserves is in its infancy.

More likely perhaps is the prospect of increased Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) imports, including in time from the US east coast, with eight EU countries now boasting LNG import terminals, including the UK.

But gas is not just important for energy security.

On Sunday 13th April, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the third and final instalment of its fifth Assessment Report.

The first instalment, released last year, focused on the physical science of climate change, and stated with increased certainty that climate change is happening, and that it is the result of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions.

The second part, which looked at the impacts of climate change and the need for adaptation, came at a timely moment here in the UK, arriving last month at a time when many of us were drying out after an unprecedented winter of storms and floods.

All three instalments of this 5th Assessment Report will be brought together in a Synthesis Report, to be published in October, which will inform the next round of global climate talks in Lima, Peru, in December.

In this week's final instalment, covering mitigation, the scientists warn that climate emissions have soared in the last decade, but on a positive note, state that rapid action can still limit global temperature rises to 2°C.

The report's central thrust is that the transformation from reliance on fossil fuels to a world of clean energy is affordable and can be done without wrecking the world economy.
But notably, the scientists concede there is a place for gas in the medium term, as a less polluting fuel to displace coal. Good news for Russia, then.

However, the report is also clear about the role that must be played by renewable energy in this transformation to a cleaner energy world, and that gas should only be seen as a transition fuel source, albeit a vital one.

Surely we can now hope to see a consensus emerging here in the UK that embraces renewables, alongside gas and nuclear, as part of a diverse energy mix which presents an opportunity to build on economic growth.

If an example were needed, look no further than the announcement last month by engineering giant Siemens confirming its plans to build major wind turbine production and installation facilities on the banks of the Humber.

According to Siemens, the two sites, which will be operational in 2016 to meet the needs of the UK's large offshore wind schemes, will create 1,000 jobs.

In a nice "coast to coast" rivalry that Wainwright would have enjoyed, Cumbria and its self-proclaimed "Energy Coast" will be joined on the UK's energy map by the Humber, which is well on the way to become the UK's "Energy Estuary"; somewhat fitting given the vulnerability of the East Coast of Yorkshire to rising tides and coastal erosion.

But investment in the UK energy sector is fraught with political risk.

Quite apart from the implications for UK energy policy of a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, and a UK general election in 12 months' time (- Ed Milliband has vowed to scrap energy regulator Ofgem), we've seen the political football get kicked around lately on the sensitive subject of energy prices.

Matters came to a head last month when Ofgem announced its intention to refer the energy markets to the Competition and Markets Authority.

An investigation could take upwards of 24 months, and comes at a critical time for the UK energy sector. We are approaching implementation of the government's Electricity Market Reform programme, which will see a new form of subsidy support for renewables, including nuclear, as well as a capacity mechanism to help deliver sufficient generation capacity to keep the lights on.

On the retail side, energy suppliers have already been subject to intense scrutiny as licence changes have taken effect to help improve switching levels and protect consumers as part of Ofgem's Retail Market Review launched way back in 2010 - not to mention the mandated roll out of smart metering.

Now, on top of all of this, we're faced with the prospect of structural reform and the potential break-up of the Big Six.

With the UN's climate scientists slowly but surely building a consensus on what is happening to our climate and why, and importantly what needs to be done, and with the global economy gradually emerging from the doldrums, perhaps the vision of a world of clean energy is no longer a pipe dream?

If so, the UK will increasingly be competing on a global stage for "green" inward investment. It takes a brave investor to see through the political fog of uncertainty that we've managed to create for ourselves and to nonetheless regard the UK as a good punt, so hats off to Siemens.


There was a bright spark on the radio the other week, fired up no doubt by the stuff floating about on educational achievement here and in China, who came out with the line ' if the Chinese are so good at Maths why don't they know when their own new year is, then ?

Toyota announced this week that it is recalling another 6.5m cars across 27 different models to fix five different problems, including faulty steering wheels and seats. It's another blow for the world's biggest selling car firm, whose reputation in recent years has taken something of a battering over quality issues.

In identifying problems and fixes quickly this time the firm is doing the right thing. Nevertheless, it's another big recall for the firm. Since early 2012, the company has recalled around 20m vehicles and sold 18.7m. The latest recall isn't even the biggest announced in a single day: back in in October 2012 it recalled 7.4m cars, mainly Yaris and Corolla models over faulty window switches.

Signs the economic recovery is underway are everywhere - companies across the West Midlands are growing, employing more people and investing in skills.

In this region, much of this recovery is driven by exports and we can be very proud of the fact that the West Midlands leads the field in international trade.

From knitwear and online address management systems, to diggers and cider, from forged grates and milking machines to flight documentation and cars - the array of West Midlands businesses now trading overseas is impressive in its breadth and diversity.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a great deal more potential for the region to grow through exports.

That's why UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) is holding its fourth Export Week (7-11 April).

On first observation the news that former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will be undertaking a 'long-term teaching position' at the world-renowned Harvard Business School might appear strange.

Some might ask what an ex-football manager knows about the world of business and management?

However, football is now a global business and clubs such as Manchester United are seen as brands.

And the amounts of money are not small beer either.

According to Deloitte who produce an annual football 'money league' in 2013 Manchester United was third behind Spanish clubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona with revenues of £320.3 million (the respective figures for Real Madrid and FC Barcelona being £390.8 m and £414.7 m).

Embroiled these days in the glittering world of international trade means that I get to spend a lot of time in glamorous locations like airports. The truth is that so low am I in the said world that searching for best flight deals leaves me spending as long on the ground in stop overs as I actually do in the air. My sense of fellow feeling with the character that Tom Hanks plays in The Terminal grows apace.

The latest raft of economic data produced by the ONS provides mixed messages as to where we currently are in the recovery process.

The good news is that the trade deficit has been reduced from £33.4billion in 2012 to £26.6billion is good news though it has to be acknowledged that this was due to the contribution of services rather than the longed for increase in manufacturing.

As reported by fellow columnist Professor David Bailey there is most definitely a sense that the fabled 'March of the makers is underway'. This is demonstrated by data showing that investment in the capability to produce goods (machinery and equipment) for the fourth quarter of 2013 was £10.7billion which represents an increase of 24.3% on the previous period for 2012.

The fact that business investment is up by 8.7% to £31.7billion for the last quarter of 2013 should also add to optimism.

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Business authors

David Bailey

David Bailey - Professor of Industrial Strategy at the Aston Business School, Birmingham
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Stuart Pemble

Stuart Pemble - Construction Lawyer, Mills & Reeve
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John Clancy

John Clancy - Birmingham City Councillor and director of mediafuturesalert.com and justliteracy.com
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John Samuels

John Samuels - Professor of Business Finance, Birmingham Business School
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Chris Tomlinson

Chris Tomlinson - Chris Tomlinson is the founder of social media and online PR agency Friend (frienddigital.com)
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Andrew Whitehead

Andrew Whitehead - Senior partner at law firm SGH Martineau, leading the firm's Energy & Climate Change practice.
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Keith Gabriel

Keith Gabriel - A Birmingham-based PR Account Manager
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Beverley Nielsen

Beverley Nielsen - Lecturer, Design Management, at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, BCU
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Mike Loftus

Mike Loftus - Director of News from the Future Ltd. Writing on the trials of setting up your own business
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Richard Halstead

Richard Halstead - Midlands region director for EEF, the manufacturers organisation.
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Karl Edge

Karl Edge - partner at KPMG in Birmingham, specialising in automotive, manufacturing and house building sectors.
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Peter Owen

Peter Owen - Managing director for construction firm Willmott Dixon Midlands.
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Dr Steven McCabe

Dr Steven McCabe - director of research degrees for Birmingham City Business School.
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Francis Greene

Francis Greene - Professor of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, at the University of Birmingham.
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Alan Gilmour

Alan Gilmour - Director at Cogent Elliott, experienced in marketing, brand development and customer relationship management.
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Paul Noon

Paul Noon - Paul Noon, OBE, West Midlands International Trade Director at UK Trade & Investment.
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