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Parties clash over priorities for London’s business community

London First

5 min read Partner content

Three of parliament’s leading business voices clashed last night over how to maintain London’s status as an economic powerhouse. 

The Business Secretary Vince Cable, the Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and Business Minister Matthew Hancock discussed the issues affecting the Capital’s businesses community at a hustings hosted by London Firstand the Federation of Small Businesses.

The event, entitled Working and Living in London: The 2015 Business Election Debate, covered the effects of an EU referendum, the demands on London’s infrastructure and the role of education and training.

On the Capital’s increasing need to expand its transport infrastructure the Business Secretary acknowledged the need for greater airport capacity but suggested that not all forthcoming recommendations would be implemented by the next government.

The Davies Commission will report to Parliament after May’s general election, and suggest which London airport should expand its services.

However, Vince Cable, speculated that cross-party political pressure would make Gatwick the more likely option to go ahead.

“On the Davies report I will just make this controversial observation… I think if it recommends Heathrow I don’t think it will happen and the reason it won’t happen is because the Boris Johnson wing of the Tory party - which is quite a big wing I think, I’m not a member of it but I suspect it’s quite a big wing - and my party and I suspect substantial chunks of Chuka’s [Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna] will oppose it vehemently because of the impact on London.

“We have got about three quarters of a million people who are already very seriously affected by Heathrow in a negative way; both noise and pollution.

“If it recommends Gatwick I suspect it will happen because only a 20th of the number of people are affected by it,” he said. 

The Shadow Business Secretary rejected this assumption stressing his support for greater aviation capacity, but stopped short of saying he would back whatever recommendation was made by the commission.  

“I don’t know what they are going to come out with,” Mr Umunna said.

He also criticised the Government’s decision to delay the Commission’s report, saying that “it shouldn’t have frankly been put off until the next parliament, it should’ve been this parliament.

“We have got see a swift and quick decision made and of course we have got to increase capacity in London.”

The Business Minister, Matthew Hancock also failed to pledge his full commitment to the committee’s decision but instead made the case for UK airports to make “better use of the runway capacity that we have got.”

On other infrastructure priorities Mr Umunna identified “exorbitant housing costs” and the need for London to have greater power to invest in skills and training.

A Labour government would, he said, devolve £13bn of funds to the Capital and end the “dither and delay” over infrastructure decisions.

Identifying his priority for London Mr Cable described suburban trains serving the city as “grotesquely overcrowded” and called for better investment to improve facilities.   

Mr Hancock also set out his party’s agenda for London’s business community, saying the Conservatives would make the city the “best place in the world to start and grow a business.”

The Business Minister warned against “anti-business rhetoric and policies,” which he said was “a threat to this country’s prosperity.”

EU Referendum 

Responding to concerns raised by John Allen, the Chairman of London First, over the uncertainly that may result from a looming referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, Mr Hancock said it was “right to resolve our relationship with the European Union.”

“I hope that we can achieve significant reform, such that we can recommend that we stay in but there is no doubt that the UK will prosper whatever the result, he added.

Mr Umunna took the opposite position advocating that the UK should “stay in working at the heart of Europe to reform it.”

The Labour party would not hold a referendum, he said, as a British exit from the EU would mean that “London would suffer.”

Immigration

The Shadow Business Secretary went onto highlight other important issues facing the Capital and made an impassioned defence of immigration.

“This awful rhetoric that you hear around Eastern Europeans, who are the flavour of the month to give a kicking, I think is disgusting…

“I would like to think that as a country we have moved on from that but we have got to fight for that ideal because clearly there are those who want to take us backwards,” he said.

Mr Cable agreed with him and raised a related issue on the visa system, calling for international students to be removed from the immigration figures.

Hinting at tensions within the Coalition Mr Cable said he had engaged in “continuing battles” with the Home Secretary Theresa May on making sure that the visa system does not prevent talented people from overseas securing places at UK universities.   

He was pleased, he added, that no cap had been imposed on international students despite the fact that “Theresa May certainly wanted one but we wouldn’t agree to it.”

Concluding the session the Business Secretary made the case for “keeping London as an open city and Britain, as far as possible, an open economy.” 

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