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Leadership Spotlight: Tim Johnson, managing director, City of Wolverhampton Council

Tim Johnson is the managing director of the City of Wolverhampton Council.

He spoke to NewStart about their £150m new train station, involving eBay with local businesses and comparisons with Birmingham.

When you’re trying to grow a city, how do you balance its different economies?

We’re not a one trick pony and if something terrible happens in one sector it’s not the end of the city and we believe we’ve spread our bets fairly evenly.

Investors are most concerned about the certainty of the workforce. They want to know if the city is able to attract a quality workforce for their business.

At the minute we have high investment, high job creation but high unemployment, which is telling you one thing – not enough people in the city are at a place where they can be competitive in the new market.

Our emphasis is about getting into the education and skills space in a much more meaningful way as it needs to speak to the employers in the city.

We play a very active leadership role in that. I chair the board of the local FE college because it’s important we get that fixed. It’s not quite where we want it to be.

There will be a ‘National Brownfield Research Centre’ opening in Wolverhampton. What is this about?

One of the focuses for us as a city is we become the go-to place in the UK for expertise around the physical development process.

We’re looking to take forward difficult and challenging sites and there’s a huge opportunity there and real substance.

We want to be real leaders in that space and we’re very much working with industry so it’s not an academic thing that sits in isolation. It will be rooted in the needs of the sector.

A state of the art new train station will be built in Wolverhampton. Why is this important for the city?

One of the strengths of the city is our location. We’re brilliantly located, 20 minutes to Birmingham, 90 minutes to Manchester and 120 minutes into London. We have real locational strengths which we want to capitalise on.

You can operate in a national way here. We will soon have the transport infrastructure that will enable us to become competitive in attracting occupiers and retain a workforce. Three million people can get to Wolverhampton within an hour. That’s a big employment catchment.

You recently set up a city centre commission. How will this help Wolverhampton weather the storm of retail?

For years Wolverhampton didn’t see the kind of investment that other city centres saw. Strangely enough, that’s playing to our advantage now. We haven’t had investment in spaces that might now be redundant and we haven’t got masses of poor quality retail space.

People want a varied experience and quality events.

We’ve been on that journey now for a couple of years. Our new transport links will mean the city will add up in a different way. It gives us some resilience.

The commission will provide some expertise for our strategy.

What is your eBay initiative about?

A month ago, eBay announced they will partner with Wolverhampton to set up the UK’s first ‘retail revival initiative.’

Retailers are small businesses but many of them have the potential to use the eBay platform to develop their business. Some become stronger businesses and then develop a physical requirement because of the growth.

We have about 80 small businesses with a retail element who will be working with ourselves and eBay over the next 12 months.

People say how does that contribute to the high street? but behind any physical premise needs to be a successful, viable business. Many of us are buying through the internet, so ignoring it and hoping there will be a magical revival of the high street is naïve. eBay will be bringing a significant investment of £12m.

eBay contributed just £1.6m in Corporation Tax last year. Does this concern you?

From our point of view, they have expertise and presence, and we want businesses to benefit from that. Whether they pay the appropriate tax is not an issue Wolverhampton is going to solve. They felt we are progressive and weren’t going to get stuck in the physical versus digital debate.

Birmingham city centre has seen significant regeneration in recent years. Do you see them as rivals?

When I first arrived in the West Midlands there was almost an antagonism to the growth of Birmingham. It’s a global city but its success is good for us. We’re 20 minutes away.

Whilst we have similar things we play in different markets. The reality is the way people live their lives you can live or work in Birmingham and commute to Wolverhampton or vice versa. I’m not someone who gets hung up on local authority boundaries. I’m interested in how do people live their lives and how businesses operate.

Frankly, businesses don’t give a monkeys about where the local authority boundaries are. It’s about real economic geographies. We want to sit alongside Birmingham but with a very distinctive offer.

Thomas Barrett
Senior journalist - NewStart Follow him on Twitter

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