‘Parochial issues, but in a regional context’

Chamber president John McCabe.
Chamber president John McCabe.
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Northumberland-based John McCabe is now just over six months into his two-year stint at the helm of the North East England Chamber of Commerce so we spoke to him to find out how his presidency is going.

John, the managing director of Fusion PR, said: “I’m really enjoying it – I get to meet a cross-section of the businesses we have right across the North East, large and small, who are doing some fantastic work, often very innovative work, creating and sustaining opportunities for people who live and work in the region.

“That’s the very best part for me – the chance to get out, meet, interact with and get to know the businesses.

“It’s also a good time to be doing this role as there’s lots to get our teeth into. It’s a really interesting time to be doing the job.”

On this, he cited two main examples – devolution and Brexit.

For the former, the Chamber covers an area which goes from Tees Valley in the far south, which signed its £450million deal back in 2015, to the far north where the North of Tyne deal is the latest to join the devolved club.

Referring to the recent developments for the reduced group of Northumberland, Newcastle and North Tyneside, John said: “We want to see that extend as far as possible across the region.

“We welcome the progress on the North of Tyne deal, but it’s important for us that it’s the beginning and not the end.”

One of the concerns about the North of Tyne devolution deal is the divide between the very urban and the extremely rural and how that will be resolved.

With that in mind, I asked John if, as a Northumbrian, he was trying to bring a stronger county perspective to the business membership organisation.

“It’s a regional role, that’s one of the real strengths, that we are not confined to one city or area, that’s why our ethos is stronger together,” he said.

“While there are unique issues and opportunities for the Northumberland business community, so there are for the Newcastle business community or the South Shields business community.

“It’s not a satellite office of a national organisation, but it has real strength in numbers through being regional.

“We are working with members in very parochial issues, but in a regional context.

“We have a very proactive, engaged Northumberland committee which feeds into the organisation as a whole – it’s got a real impact at the regional level.”

This is reflected in the Chamber’s campaign for 2018 for a Stronger North East, which was launched earlier this month.

Members had identified the political decisions they believed would have the biggest positive impact on economic growth in the next 12 months, which include fair funding and further devolution to the North East, investment in key infrastructure and support to grow the region’s exports.

But John admits that this campaign is a balancing act between those wider issues and the more local concerns, with the Chamber needing to look outwards and inwards.

“Some of those very local transport issues have far-reaching impacts for businesses across the area,” he said. “Transport, housing and skills are absolutely crucial.”

He added: “The North East is a very special place to live and work and we want to get that message across.”

Brexit, which touches so much in our lives at present, is also ‘a key priority’, according to John. “We want to make sure that conditions for exporting are as favourable as they can be and make sure our region is welcoming to inward investment too.”

Continuing on that theme, he said: “The Chamber didn’t take a position and we are not going to do that now, but given the result, we want to see a deal with a sensible transition period that safeguards the North-East economy.

“Brexit creates a lot of uncertainty and we would like to see more clarity from the Government and want businesses to be fully engaged in that process going forward and able to speak directly to the Government.

“I have talked a lot about uncertainty being the new certainty, but if you go back, there was the financial crash, then the Coalition Government, which was different for this country, then the EU referendum, with a possibly unexpected result, and all the time, business has just carried on doing the best it can.

“We have stretched that elastic as far as we can.”

When he was elected president back in June last year, John set out ‘three distinct ways I want to help our members gain more mutual benefit from each other’.

“The priority for the Chamber is always to deliver what our members expect us to deliver,” he said, but added that within the remit of president, there is freedom to push some of your own agenda.

For him, that is improving networks within the North East, better links between business and education to ensure the ‘best possible pathways’ into employment and mental health, which is something of which he has personal experience.

“I just think it’s really urgent that we address what is a business-critical issue,” he said.

“There are extraordinarily talented people in the business community who experience mental-health problems – around one in four will experience issues and some of those will be in business – so it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s really important for businesses in terms of their workforce and having the right people. It’s about retaining the workforce that you have got.”