Sheffield City Region has so much going for it but doesn't sell it very well, says Local Enterprise Partnership boss

James Muir who formerly chief executive of Spanish car giant SEAT
James Muir who formerly chief executive of Spanish car giant SEAT

A former automotive industry executive who helped turn round the Spanish car giant SEAT has a new job getting under the bonnet of the under-performing South Yorkshire economy. Rob Parsons went to meet him.

After the best part of four decades on the road, former global automotive industry executive James Muir had been looking forward to a more relaxing retirement in his adopted home city of Sheffield when a job prospect came up that was too good to ignore.

The 59-year-old father-of-three retired last December from the Volkswagen Group, where his final job had been overseeing its national sales companies across more than 20 countries around the world.

Perhaps his highest-profile role was as chief executive of struggling Spanish car giant SEAT, a "forlorn, runt-of-the-litter brand" whose fortunes he helped turn around between 2009 and 2013 against the backdrop of the global economic crisis.

A native Welshman, he opted to put roots down in his wife's home city of Sheffield with his family and soon became the chair of trustees at Astrea, a multi-academy schools trust with two dozen sites around South Yorkshire.

But with the end of his paid career looming his future plans involved enjoying life at his home in Whirlow and spending more time with his family, with the idea of another big job not in his thoughts.

James Muir, chair of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership

James Muir, chair of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership

"I thought, 'I'm supposed to be doing my trustee job with the school and running the family and we have got a couple of building projects going on, I was going to see my mum, and I can get fit, and we're going to buy a dog', those sort of things," he said.

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It was at this point that he was told about the upcoming vacancy at the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the body created to help determine local economic priorities and lead economic growth.

With his wife Julia already on the LEP's board his interest was piqued, and he applied for and got the job. Sitting in its headquarters in central Sheffield, he tells The Yorkshire Post the role is a good fit with his career to date.

"I have become passionate about getting this region to be more successful economically than it has in the past," he says. "I think it has a lot going for it, but it doesn't sell it very well. It has a fantastic reputation with those people who know all about it.

"Sheffield as a city is under-estimated but from the outside. People who come here say it is the best-kept secret, greenest city, fantastic place to live, great universities, great healthcare, interesting people, fun place to be.

"But you talk to people in London or up in Scotland or in Germany, as I used to commute from Sheffield to Germany, people ask 'where is that' or say 'that is the steel town that hasn't got any steel any more', the coal mines and Orgreave.

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"That legacy is still there, it feels like a city that hasn't found its way to regenerate following closure of some of the old industrial revolution industries.

"It has not picked itself back up properly. There are many places like that in the North of England, and this is one of them, and we know it, the facts and figures tell that and I would like to try and make a contribution to giving this region a leg-up if I can, that might sound very arrogant that I think I can do that but I would love to try my best to give it a go.

"It is what I have ended up doing in the back end of my career, which is 'can you do this, can you fix this'. Am I good enough to do that? Time will tell, I will give it a go.

"Am I willing to take the risk? Yes, because I am not afraid of failure. I was brought up to be a trier. I would rather fail trying to succeed than not dare at all."

As with SEAT, the task ahead of him is considerable in what is one of the most deprived areas in Western Europe. Social mobility in South Yorkshire is 30 per cent lower than the rest of the country and educational outcomes are poor.

He speaks of a "transformational" task, rather than just an incremental one, in turning round the region's economy and appreciates the challenge of persuading local leaders that such a task is plausible.

Though his role is voluntary and unpaid, he is currently working four days a week in what he describes as the "ramp-up phase" where he makes contacts and gets under the bonnet of his new role.

And in his first four operational weeks he has already travelled to 10 Downing Street for a meeting of LEP chairs with Theresa May, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Communities Secretary James Brokenshire.

He is still working to align his priorities with those of Dan Jarvis, the Sheffield City Region mayor who as Barnsley MP spends a lot of his time in London in what is a "challenging time in Parliament". But in his bid to bring about a "transformational" change to the South Yorkshire economy, he is already clear about what he wants to do and the role of the LEP.

A new governance structure for the organisation, a partnership between local business and civic leaders, comes into place on April 1. And he is focused on coming up with a strategic economic plan to put the region in the best position after Brexit when it is reliant on the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund model, replacing EU funds.

But a major priority is defining the city's brand that can be sold around the country and further afield, something strong and recognisable enough to get into the psyche of people outside Sheffield.

He cites his previous experience of developing the SEAT brand, a task which involved explaining to the company's Spanish workers that their perception of the country's olive oil and ham being the best was not shared elsewhere in the world.

"The conclusion was 'we're not very good at selling that Spanish brand'," he said. "And I think that is a symptom we have here to a certain extent. We have so much going for this region that we don't market it very well.

"A brand is something consistent that people recognise and stands for something. It has to be anchored in some heritage and we have some fantastic heritage. It's about what does that personality look like as well.

"As well as the strategic economic programme we need to have a brand that answers the question 'why would I invest in the Sheffield City Region, why not in Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham'. The strength of a brand is where you no longer have to answer that question."

With devolution talks at deadlock, the Sheffield City Region is missing out on at least £30m a year it could be getting from the Government as part of the deal signed in 2015.

Mr Muir does not want to critique the position of the political leaders involved in the stalemate but says from a LEP perspective it is a "shame" that deal has not been concluded.

He says: "We are out of pocket as a result of not going forward with this devolution deal and I very much hope we will not prevaricate too long and continue to lose that money.

"It's more than £30m a year potentially because you can match that money with private sector investment as well and I'm not sure that is clear to the population.

"We want the money because it means more investment, improvement in productivity, earlier achievement of our goals, and those goals are the wellbeing of the people who live and work in the Sheffield City Region."