John Penrose MP

John Penrose MP

This month The North Somerset Business Leader interviews John Penrose MP.

John was elected as MP for Weston, Worle and the Villages in 2005 and again in 2010. To learn more about John’s business background please see below.

A common concern business leaders in North Somerset stress, is that finance isn’t getting through to them quick enough. What are your thoughts about this?

“There are serious problems but they are not universal. The issue of firms getting finance varies enormously by sector and by business.

Bigger firms and firms with physical assets tend to be finding it easier but again, this can’t be applied as a universal rule because some smaller firms are accessing credit successfully too. And some big businesses have built up large cash reserves whilst many small ones are starved of liquidity.

Which bank you’re with can also make a difference. Amongst the banks there is definitely a difference in attitude to lending and taking risks.

An economist would say there is low velocity in the economy at the moment – meaning there isn’t enough money circulating fast enough. In practice it means there isn’t enough petrol reaching the engine, which is choking growth. It’s a very complex problem which is hard to resolve, but we aren’t giving up, as I hope last month’s announcement of a new ‘Business Bank’ shows.”

There is also concern about red-tape and the burden it is placing on them during these tough times. Do you feel this is justified?

“I am a real zealot about slashing red tape and would agree it’s a huge problem. I am also the Business Secretary’s – Vince Cable MP – biggest fan, because I wrote the Conservative Party’s policy on the issue when we were still in opposition, and he read it out almost word for word in his first speech in the role.

So I agree with businesses on the size of the problem. It is an implacable ratchet because successive governments have been adding more and more red tape for years, and the culture of Brussels and Whitehall is deeply in favour of endlessly adding more rules rather than taking any away.

As a government we are hacking away at the accumulated tangle of red tape, so we’ve started making a bad situation better. And we are only adding new regulations if we can delete equally large ones at the same time. It’s like turning a super tanker around. We’ve got a long way to go but I believe we’re heading in the right direction.

But it takes time. And you have to be careful though because many regulations have good intentions even though they’re framed wrong; for example we will always need rules to make sure our drinking water is safe. So you can’t just come in and get rid of everything, however tempting it may be!”

Some people argue that the Liberal Democrats in government are hampering the business friendly agenda – do you feel this is the case?

“I wouldn’t say so. Vince Cable has accepted a raft of changes already but just doesn’t want to go much further on one issue – employment law – which has been well-documented by the media. But elsewhere, on issues like health and safety or planning, the two parties are much more united than they are divided and have the same end goal.

Inevitably there will be arguments – you get them in one-party governments just as much as coalitions – but, so far, ours tend to be technocratic, about the policy details and whether they will work in practice, rather than due to differences in political philosophy.”

So ultimately, you feel business leaders in North Somerset can be confident that government is ‘business friendly’?

“Compared to the last government we are definitely more business friendly. But because I come from a business background then, of course, I believe any government can always do more.

For example, even though we are heading in the right direction, the amount of red tape is still enormous – The British Chamber of Commerce ran a British Business Burdens Barometer and it found that between 1998 and 2009 red tape and regulation cost British business around £76.81bn. That’s a huge dead weight slung around the neck of business in this country, and we need to make it lighter.”

Now onto the subject of business locally – do you feel enough is being done to attract inward investment and promote the region as a business destination?

“Broadly speaking we can always do more, although I think we’re starting to make good progress. If you look at Weston’s seafront and the area near Junction 21 you can see that many much needed developments are starting to come to fruition. Equally, no matter who is running the Council, there’s a helpful cross-party consensus that we need more jobs before more houses are built.

It’s not that building houses is bad but it’s about striking the right balance, and making Weston into a more sustainable community over time.”

Do you feel that the developments coming forward – such as Junction 21 – are being overshadowed by too much focus on the Tropicana?

“The Tropicana has taken up a lot of air time but with good reason. It’s a piece of Weston’s heritage which many people have fond memories of, so it will always evoke strong opinions.

But we need to make sure it doesn’t overshadow the other, really exciting developments I mentioned earlier. They are starting to get coverage in the media, but architects plans and drawings will never have the same impact as an existing building that people can see and touch, particularly one with the history of the Tropicana.

So people are still learning about the new projects. But in the next six months, when we can see them being built, the awareness and inclination to find out more will grow naturally.

I do feel they are getting reported as well – the Junction 21 development has been very recently reported by yourself and The Mercury. It’s just not quite visible yet – people can’t reach out and touch it but this will come.”

How much will the creation of these new business developments impact on the number of people who commute out of Weston to work?

“The developments will create the opportunity for more people to stay here and will provide more of a balance between job creation and house building.

But you know, very luckily we live in a free country and there will always be people who want to work in Bristol but live in Weston, or on the flipside there will be someone who wants to live in Chew Magna, for example, but wants to commute into Weston to work.

The creation of new jobs may actually see more people commuting into Weston. Undoubtedly though it will bring about a net reduction in people leaving the town to work but it won’t completely eliminate it.”

Of great interest at the moment is the reform of the education system, with GCSEs to be replaced by an English Baccalaureate – in the years to come how do you feel this will benefit businesses in North Somerset?

“From an employers point of view it is really valuable to know that their prospective interviewees have qualifications that really mean something. The worst possible qualification is one that a job applicant has spent ages getting, but doesn’t carry any weight in the wider world outside. Michael Gove’s Education reforms will make sure the value of qualifications is maintained, which should benefit business hugely in future.”

In the future Bristol will elect a Boris Johnson style mayor to serve the city. Would you like to see this rolled out to every authority and have a fully mandated mayor for North Somerset?

“I haven’t had anybody coming to me saying that Weston or North Somerset needs an elected mayor. It’s certainly not a burning issue for local people.

Mayors work well in big dynamic cities and can do great things, but that doesn’t mean we should impose them on the rest of the country.”

But you’re in favour of replacing police authorities with a democratically accountable Police Commissioner?

“You’re making it sound as though, if you’re in favour of electing Police Commissioners, you ought to want a mayor for North Somerset too. I don’t think that’s right. Elected police commissioners are different from mayors; they should strengthen the connection between the police and the policed.

It’s not that the current system is failing dreadfully – that isn’t the case at all – but it’s not a bad thing to do and could yield big improvements, even if it hasn’t quite captured the imagination of the public yet. But once the elected commissioner has had a term in office and, assuming it goes well then, next time round, I expect interest will grow and grow.”

To conclude – do you have a message you’d like to give to businesses in North Somerset?

“My message is that I believe government should get the hell out the way and let businesses create employment and wealth, not hold them back. I hope I understand this a little better than many politicians because, unlike many in Westminster, I had a ‘proper’ job in business before being elected. So I’m naturally sympathetic and, if I can help in any way, I will.”

And to give readers some context – what is your average day, if there is such a thing?

“There isn’t really an average day for me – it can be as varied as any General Manager’s.

Generally though I will come in and there will be a 1,000 things I could do but only three of four that will really move the dial so, as in business, you have to weed everything else out.

Each day starts with a huge postbag of letters and emails. Correspondence from constituents goes straight to the top of the list, and can cover anything from policy questions to casework about housing, pensions and many other issues.

Then I read any information that’s come in about local and national campaigns that need my attention – these could be about anything, from democracy in Burma to saving the direct train service from Weston to London – and finally, like everybody else, I get a lot of self-serving junk mail which usually goes straight in the bin.

Once the postbag is done – it takes a while – I usually spend time in Parliament covering the issues of the day on behalf of Weston, from law to defence or housing.

That might involve debating in the Commons itself, but it’s equally likely to be press interviews or contributing to policy papers and working with think tanks as well.

The closest business equivalent would be a key account B to B sales role, where you’re trying to build strategic influence with a client; politics is (at least partly) about persuasion after all. If Parliament isn’t sitting then I’ll be in my office on Alexandra Parade in Weston instead, but doing much the same things from there.”

John Penrose MP – business background.

After University, John had an extensive and successful business career before he entered Parliament. He worked for a variety of large, blue chip companies starting with J P Morgan (risk management on a bank trading floor); then McKinsey (strategic management consultancy); Thompson (academic book publishing) culminating at Pearson PLC (Managing Director of Longman’s schoolbook publishing operations) before striking out on his own in a Management Buy-Out (MBO) of Logotron (educational software for schools), later adding Widgit (special needs software for children with dyslexia). He also helped found Credit Market Analysis (publishing credit data for financial firms) which was sold to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and is now part of Standard & Poors.

* Please note – all views expressed are those of the interviewee and do no reflect or represent the views of the Weston & North Somerset Ech0 – which is an independent online business news portal and print magazine.