Despite its strengths, Coventry and Warwickshire’s economic performance was just average. Adam Dent reveals how the region learned to tell its own story so it could fulfil its potential
Coventry and Warwickshire is proof that a successful place is more than simply a collection of assets.
The area is one of the most accessible in the UK, set right at the heart of the country’s transport network, and has all the attributes an area needs to thrive. It has a major city, wonderful historic towns, fantastic leisure assets, a wonderful natural environment, a very strong industrial and commercial base, and two major award-winning universities.
Yet for many years, it was not the sum of its parts. Economic performance was average – despite the above-average attributes – and it suffered from an image problem. That has changed.
The advent of the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP), designed to drive the economy forward, and the birth and subsequent success of the Coventry and Warwickshire Place Board have brought deep-seated changes, the fruits of which are now being realised.
The Place Board was formed in 2012 and Les Ratcliffe, a former senior executive at Jaguar Land Rover, has chaired the board from day one. He believes a combination of factors – backed by a co-ordinated effort – have really propelled the area to a new level.
He says: “I think, like many areas, people were trying to do good things to improve Coventry and Warwickshire, but there was no sense of shared purpose or common goals. That has now changed beyond recognition.
“The Place Board was really the brainchild of Martin Reeves, the chief executive of Coventry City Council, who realised that some focus was badly needed to fulfil our potential as a place to live, work, play and invest in.
“He commissioned ‘Thinking Place’ to really look at Coventry and Warwickshire and draw up the story of it as a place. A board, made up predominantly of interested and driven private sector members, was brought together to build upon that work.”
One of the main initiatives was to create a ‘champions’ scheme that would enable businesses and organisations to tell the story of Coventry and Warwickshire.
Six years after its formation, the champions scheme is now a very strong network, with bi-monthly meetings that regularly attract an audience of 200.
Ratcliffe adds: “The power of our champions scheme has been one of the main successes. We attract speakers who have a strong connection with our area but are, more often than not, operating at a national level.
“The LEP has ensured that we have to act as one. The private sector does not really recognise civic boundaries and it was important that ethos was shared and the LEP has made it happen”
“They have to bring something fresh to our meetings, because informing the audience is vital, not only to attracting them but also – more importantly – to getting them to act as our network, spreading word of everything happening here.
“We have unearthed key figures who live or work in this area who we never would have known about. They range from a woman originally from this area whose company won a special effects Oscar, through the CEO of one of the largest dining chains in the UK, to the designer of the first all-electric superbike.
“None of them had been heard in this area; all had fascinating stories – stories rooted here.”
The sense that Coventry and Warwickshire had not used its assets to attract and host major events was also manifested through the scheme. When that potential was explained at an early meeting, it struck a chord.
One champion could not believe there was no event to celebrate the fact the city was the centre of the UK motor industry. Stirred on by the challenge laid down, he formed Moto-Fest, which in a few short years became the premier city-centre event of its type, attracting 140,000 weekend visitors.
Another champion was inspired by Thinking Place’s themes of ‘events’ and ‘peace and reconciliation’ to found Rising – a global peace and conflict-resolution symposium that brings key figures from across the world.
Those two major events have been joined by others – the OVO Energy Women’s Tour, the OVO Energy Tour of Britain, the Big Weekend – which have brought major attractions to the area for local people and visitors. The 2022 Commonwealth Games will bring judo, wrestling, rugby sevens and lawn bowls to Coventry and Warwickshire.
The Place Board now sits under the auspices of the CWLEP, which Ratcliffe believes has been instrumental in improving Coventry and Warwickshire as a place.
“For many years, the town and county were often politically opposed and there was, to be honest, a level of chippiness and resentment.
“The LEP has ensured that we have to act as one. The private sector does not really recognise civic boundaries and it was important that ethos was shared and the LEP has made it happen.”
That was no more in evidence when Coventry won the right to be the 2021 UK City of Culture. It was primarily a bid by the city, but won the full support of the whole area. Warwickshire County Council has leant support and has given its financial backing, while companies from across the area have contributed.
Ratcliffe added: “To see Warwickshire in the heart of Coventry, celebrating on the night we were announced as UK City of Culture, was for me a telling moment. It proved that we had made real progress.
“That unity has created a real sense of place that has allowed us to make huge steps that benefit local people and visitors, which would just not have been possible before.
“A great deal of that work has deliberately gone on below the radar but it has given us the purpose and pride to be more ambitious in what we set out to achieve – and the unity has allowed us to make it happen.”
“To see Warwickshire in the heart of Coventry, celebrating on the night we were announced as UK City of Culture, was for me a telling moment. It proved that we had made real progress”
The story of Coventry and Warwickshire
Thinking Place identified four elements that were the foundation of the Place Board.
The wealth of cultural, sporting and conference facilities that draw millions of visitors to the area every year.
Peace and reconciliation
The area boasts the world-renowned Coventry Cathedral, a symbol of its continuing role promoting peace and reconciliation.
Connection to the rest of the UK
The area is in the heart of the country with a perfect balance between urban and rural living. It is in close proximity to Birmingham and just 50 minutes from London. The area’s connectivity is unrivalled.
Innovation, technology and learning
The region’s world-renowned universities are home to more than 50,000 students. Partnerships between business and education are just one of the reasons it is home to global brands such as JLR, Aston Martin and PSA Peugeot Citroën.