Q&A: London First’s Jasmine Whitbread on Brexit, business and doing good

Q&A: London First’s Jasmine Whitbread on Brexit, business and doing good

London First defines itself as a business membership organisation on a mission to make London the best place in the world for business. It represents the views and interests of an array of the largest companies in the capital, along with key higher education institutions. Jasmine Whitbread was appointed the organisation’s chief executive in October 2016. We met at London First’s offices in Cleveland Street, W1. 

Question: This isn’t going to be a personality profile, but you have an interesting and varied CV: marketing, Uganda, Oxfam, Thomson Financial, Save The Children.

Answer: I started out in business – I needed to get a job and pay the rent. I graduated in English. People figured out that I could write, so I got a job in PR and then marketing, and then I was promoted into line management. So far, so conventional. But as I was growing up, like a lot of young people, I thought, there’s quite a lot of injustice in the world, it would be great to play a part in addressing some of that. At that time, business hadn’t developed the idea that you can do well by doing good. At least, I didn’t find any companies like that.

I really enjoyed my time in business, but the youthful thoughts stayed with me. When I came out of university I applied to do Voluntary Service Overseas. They didn’t take people without experience, but I stayed on their books and they got back to me when I did have experience, both in the UK and in the United States. They said they had an opening for providing management training to an organisation in Uganda.

So I went and did it. It really convinced me that my skills were transferable – I’m a great believer in that. After that, I resumed my commercial career in the States and then my boss sent me on a course at Stanford, which gave me time to reflect and meet lots of new, interesting people. It so happened that while I was there the Economist ran a full page ad from Oxfam, who were looking for regional directors. I applied and, long story short, ended up moving to West Africa and yet again finding that although the environment was very different from Boston – it looked and felt very different, my kids went to very different schools and so on – the challenges in terms of running a sizeable organisation were very recognisable. You had limited resources but lots of opportunity. You had to have a clear strategy, bring people with you, get the finances right etcetera, etcetera. I ended up running Oxfam international programmes and then moving over to Save the Children, where I spent 10 years.

I’m now at London First because I was really taken by its mission, which is to make London the best city in the world for business and now to keep London as the best city. I’m a Londoner and I love London and everything it stands for and I think there was a sense of jeopardy after the EU referendum.

Q: That brings me perfectly to my next question. How are London and its larger businesses going to fare after Brexit?

A: Obviously at one level keeping London at the top of the global charts in terrifically complex and there are a huge number of interconnected issues. But at another level it is incredibly straightforward. We survey our members regularly. One had just been done when I came on board this time last year, and I then went out meeting our key partners and members. The three things that popped up, and keep popping up are, firstly people and then where they live and how they get about.

On people, business wants to make sure it continues to have access to global talent. You can’t be a great global city without global talent, Talent and skills is the number one thing, whether it’s in property, financial services, hospitality or construction. That’s absolutely clear from all these chief executives. It’s always been important, but the referendum that made it shoot up to the top of the list. One of our construction industry members said just the other day that a lot of EU workers, who often have choices about which country they work in, left immediately after the referendum. It’s been the same with different sectors at different times – lots of anecdotal stories of people going home for their holidays and not showing up again.

A lot of it is the sentiment, the not feeling welcome. Employers have tried to reassure workers as much as possible, but the general mood music is not helpful. We lobbied from day one that there was no reason why the government shouldn’t make an immediate unilateral guarantee to non-UK EU citizens working here that they could stay and not make it part of the negotiation. Our business leaders were saying this could be a quick win, we should just move on this. And when Theresa May made her speech in Florence in September this year we thought, we were there. But then the next day we had David Davies saying, yes, we’re nearly there in the negotiations. So the recent announcement of an agreement for EU citizens to stay is welcome. But this vital progress now need to be banked, with no room for backtracking as we move to the next critical stage – transition and trade.

The other thing is asking for students to be taken out of the new migration numbers and government thinking about them in the way most people do, which is that they are positive contributors in a whole range of ways. You don’t find many voters who are concerned about students – they recognise that they are different from migrants. Those were two things the government should have been able to do unilaterally, nothing to do with the negotiations.

The other side of the coin, though, is that business really has woken up to the need to do more on the skills side – there’s more we can and should do to develop young Londoners. Unemployment rates in the country and in London in particular are pretty low. It’s not as if you’ve got a lot of young people out there who can’t find a job. But there’s still a mismatch of supply and demand.

We hold a Skills London careers show at the ExCel centre every year, with 50,000 career openings on offer and 40,000 young people, 16 to 24 year-olds, coming along. It sets out opportunities in everything from bricklaying to Google to apprenticeships at Heathrow as well as the higher education options. And that was only from London’s top 200 employers and higher education establishments over just two days. We’re looking at how we can make this a year-round forum so that young people who don’t go to university in particular get to see more of what is available to them. What young people are coming out of school with, and what employers are looking for don’t dovetail as well as we would like.

We have put together a skills commission, which London First’s chairman John Allan is leading, to have a look at that and see what we could scale up and how we could make more of a difference. It is looking at what is going on within a plethora of initiatives that actually works and that we could put business behind and ask government to scale up That’s our model of change as London First – it’s not just to lobby government it’s also about how can we bring the assets of our businesses to the table.

On the Apprenticeship Levy we’ve had some numbers come through showing there aren’t quite as many apprenticeships as we’d hope for. In principle the levy is not a bad thing, but it’s being implemented in quite a centralised, heavy handed way. We’re gathering feedback now and we’re going to make a bunch of recommendations in terms of how it could be a little bit more flexible so that businesses have full take up of it so that we actually see those numbers increasing.

Q: Where does London First stand on migration policy post-Brexit. There was a period of quite serious discussion by some other groups and observers about a special London work visa, for example.

 A: Our members want something as simple as possible. They are proposing a system that would work for London but also for the rest of the UK. So not a different system for London. It would build on two things that are already in place. One is the system of visas for high pay, high skills employers – the professional services and so on. There is a route there already and I think one in four of the EU workers who are here could meet its criteria. The other is for people with unique skills, tech and creative skills- those we call multipliers. They people who wouldn’t necessarily come here for a job, but would be job creators. We think those two routes should be opened up more.

For London in particular, though again not only for London, we are mindful of skills shortage areas for all of those people in the middle, whether it’s construction workers, carers, hospitality employees, you name it – all those people who we see, every day working in London. We think the migration advisory committee could work to designate some skills shortage areas nationally, review that on a regular basis and do a deal with business to the effect that, yes, you can continue to hire migrants in those areas but keep it under review. And at the same time, business would take steps to reduce its reliance on foreign-born workers by skilling up. Automation is going to play a part in that too. We’re asking for an evidence-based approach on those shortage occupations.

It’s a dual track, almost like a sliding scale, over a ten-year time period. Having road-tested it with a bunch of business membership organisations and our chief execs, we believe that is a proposal that would work, not only for London but for the rest of the UK.

Q: And what about where people live? Housing is a big issue for business in London just as it is for so many individuals.

A: It’s not an overstatement to say we have a housing crisis in London and addressing it is all the more urgent because of Brexit. We now know from the Mayor’s draft London Plan that we should be building 66,000 new homes every year when we’ve consistently managed no better than about 24,000. We’re quite pleased to see how housing has made it into the mainstream political agenda over the last few weeks and months and it’s entirely within government control to keep London competitive in this respect.

The good news is that the number of planning permissions granted for housing is up and the number of new builds in the first half of the year was also up, which means this could be a bumper year for housing, which would at least be a move in the right direction. What we keep trying to do here is bring the focus back to the fundamentals, which are money, land and along with that, building practices. We need more money from the government, the Mayor’s got to make more land available and we’ve got to get, new smarter building practices to help speed things up.

Sadiq’s draft London Plan is great. He’s taken on board our Homes for Londoners report and there’s some real fighting talk and a focus on the outer boroughs, which are not doing their bit. What is less clear are the mechanisms he might use for holding those boroughs to account. There are things that he can do, in terms of being more interventionist, calling things in and so on. But it’s all a little bit vague still.

He’s focussed very much in his first year on affordable housing. That’s great, but from a business perspective we’ve always said that getting 35% of not very much [on commercial development] is not very much, so we need to get the volumes going up as well. What I’m mainly hearing from our construction and property development members is they’re pleased to have to clarity about this, but let’s stick with it and have some follow through.

Q: The Mayor has continued to stick to the status quo regarding the green belt, but a lot of good judges think it has to be reviewed if we’re going to increase house building significantly. It’s political dynamite, of course. But should Sadiq have been braver in the London Plan?

A: Your analysis is exactly the same as ours. We’ve actually taken to photographing things like disused pumping stations 200 metres from a Tube station – a brownfield site – saying, this is a part of our green belt that we’re trying to protect. It’s another emotional argument, isn’t it? Trying to cut through it by intellectual debate isn’t going to work. We favour borough-led reviews of green belt designation, which could be a real win-win. It you could build on the sort of derelict green belt land we’re talking about, the uplift from it could be used on another bit of the site to plant something that actually is green. Logically, that’s what should happen.

Q: And the third big theme was transport. What’s your main focus at present?

A: We’re concentrating hard on Crossrail 2. There’s a major initiative now to show how London can meet 50% of the cost of it during construction and not just towards the back end, which is what the first plan came out with, and which the Treasury and [transport secretary] Chris Grayling didn’t like. The other part of it is counteracting the unhelpful narrative of it’s us against them – either Crossrail 2 or Crossrail of the North. We’ve always said this should not be an either or, it’s got to be both. So we’ve made common cause with the north-west business leadership team, the northern powerhouse and the Midlands Engine

But we do think that the government, with business stepping up to the plate to help with Crossrail 2 in London, should be able to do that. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I’m confident they can find a way through and that should mean more money available for the plans for the North. Our members are not employers in London only. They want London to be successful, but not at the expense of other parts of the UK. They’ve got great business interests right across the UK and they’d like to see all regions being successful. It’s very hard for you or I as Londoners to win that argument, but you can win it if you get, for example, a councillor from Manchester also saying it’s not us versus them.

Q: Finally, the Mayor talks about promoting what he calls “good growth”. How would you define “good growth”?

A: Most of our members would say that the growth they want is good, and that is why I’m in this job. I think business has moved on dramatically in the last couple of decades. Our property developers, for example, talk about consulting with communities and with all of their stakeholders, bringing people along with them, thinking about the overall place, mixed use developments and so on. They want to be making money but doing it in a way that is sustainable, that builds trust and social capital so they can continue to do business. All business leaders that I talk to, and I do that every day, believe that they can do well by doing good.

Categories: Analysis

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *