MUSHTAQ KHAN WANTS GREATER BIRMINGHAM’S PROFESSIONAL BUSINESS SERVICES SECTOR TO HAVE A BIG SAY IN REGIONAL AFFAIRS. BQ EDITOR STEVE DYSON FINDS OUT MORE OVER LUNCH.
Within half an hour of meeting Mushtaq Khan, I realise that he’s a driven man with a mission to change the world. Or at least to change the corner of our world that’s increasingly called Greater Birmingham.
The original reason for sitting down with Khan is to ask how his year as president of Birmingham Law Society is going. But we’ll come to that later, as it’s clear he’s got something much more important to tell me.
By the end of this year, he hopes to launch Greater Birmingham One Voice, a new lobbying group made up of representatives from organisations representing the region’s legal, financial and professional business services sector. He wants this group – let’s abbreviate it to GBOV for now – to quickly assert itself as a major influencer of local government policy, helping to attract inward investment and grow the region to its full potential.
And he’s already got some of the big names on board: his own Birmingham Law Society; the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce; the Royal Institute of British Architects; the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales; the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; and the Birmingham Insurance Institute.
“A lot of those organisations currently work in silos,” says Khan, aged 49. “What we need now is joined-up thinking to create a collective, much stronger and more coherent voice.”
But what gives GBOV the right to demand such a role? He reminds me that the legal, financial and professional business services sector is worth some £23bn across the Midlands region, with 21,000 companies employing 220,000 people – one fifth of the working population. He says: “One of the problems in the past has been organisations who claim to ‘represent’ the region but have no mandate. Our sector, however, employs so many people, which means we’re already contributing in major ways both economically and socially. And we have a mandate from all those organisations’ members. Now we need to make sure our voice is being heard, and that it’s a constructive but powerful voice.
“Greater Birmingham is in an incredibly competitive market in terms of attracting business and inward investment to this region. We don’t only need people to start up here, we also need to attract what’s known as ‘onshoring’ – where companies such as HSBC are moving large chunks of offices to Birmingham.
“With property costs so high in London, there are many big corporates considering moving offices to the regions, and you can bet they’re checking out all the cities. Why should they come here? We as a region have to put forward a strong case, and I believe [GBOV] can help the region to do this.”
Khan reckons he’s already got the ear of the likes of Neil Rami, chief executive of Marketing Birmingham, whose Business Birmingham arm is charged with inward investment. “He [Rami] sees the importance of trying to attract businesses with our young population, our university graduates, our talent pool. And we have the property, the infrastructure – the roads, rail, and growing airport – to talk about, as well as the food and the culture.”
But there’s so much more that needs to be done, according to Khan, and that’s where he feels GBOV can help. “We’re just not very good at promoting ourselves,” he says. “Manchester is already the so-called ‘northern powerhouse’, and they’ve got the ear of the Chancellor. We even saw President Xi Jinping from China sidestep Birmingham to go to Manchester, so the writing is on the wall. We have a lot of catching up to do or we’ll end up losing out.
“It always surprises me that we’re the ‘first city’ outside of London but we’re just not great at promoting ourselves. That has to come from the business sector. In legal services alone, we’re encouraging more growth – for example, Hogan Lovells has just opened a Birmingham office. But we can’t rest on our laurels.
“We’ve got to make sure people are convinced that Greater Birmingham is the best place for law, for financial and professional business services. The politicians will have their views, but we businesses have to roll up our sleeves and help the region improve, to help it face the new challenges of devolution, the forthcoming EU referendum and whatever else.”
The GBOV lobbying group is Khan’s own idea, and so once it’s up and running he’s happy to initially chair it, meeting with the heads of all partner organisations “at least quarterly” to address key issues, releasing joint statements to influence decision-makers, and holding
“I’m passionate about law,” says Khan, “but I’m equally passionate about Birmingham. It’s incredible how it’s changed in the last 20 years. But I think there’s still a lot more to do. And I’ve realised that I may not get this opportunity again, so if I can play a role in shaping Birmingham in a positive way, that’s what I want to achieve.”
It’s a fine ambition for a lad born in Hay Mills, Birmingham, and schooled at local state schools before taking Law at York University. His career started at the Equality and Human Rights Commission before he worked for a series of Birmingham solicitors: Sydney Mitchell, McGrath & Co, Lee Crowder and Gateleys. He started in legal aid, assisting tenants in disputes with councils and housing associations, before switching sides and representing landlords. In 2010 he became a partner at Freeth Cartwright – now rebranded as Freeths – where he’s national head of housing.
“Law firms used to deal with all sorts of issues,” says Khan. “Family law, conveyancing, legal disputes, criminal cases – all under one roof. That’s changed nowadays, and firms are more focused in niche areas and specialities.
“It’s an expectation from clients that you’ll give them good legal advice. But now they’re looking for solutions to their problems, and in order to do that you need to know not only the law but also your client’s business and where they’re trying to get. You have to immerse yourself in the sector, or your advice won’t be complete in terms of a client’s business needs.”
Khan is certainly immersed, spending a sizeable chunk of his time as a board member of Acclaim Housing Group. And he believes there’s a “significant” housing problem in the UK, driven by a lack of affordable homes.
He says: “They’re [the Government] talking about encouraging first-time buyers, but housing inflation caused by the lack of housing has become a big crisis, especially when you’re trying to attract and retain quality workforces, because not enough people can afford their own homes.
“In the 1960s – I remember my late father telling me – it was perfectly possible for the average working man to buy his own house and, if he was careful, to pay off the mortgage within ten years. That’s almost impossible now in great swathes of the country. Instead there’s significant amounts of debt that will pass from one generation to another.”
As well as Freeths and Acclaim, Khan’s other focus in recent years has been Birmingham Law Society, the largest outside of London in England and Wales with more than 4,400 members.
Khan describes it as “incredibly active”, with 12 committees working in various practice areas to “represent, support and promote” members. He cites the employment law committee which this year has provided detailed feedback to seven consultation papers from the Government and national bodies. Khan, who’s been a Birmingham Law Society council member for six years, is now more than half way through his year as president. He’s already helped raise more than £33,000 for his chosen charity – the ‘Tiny Babies, Big Appeal’, for premature babies at Birmingham Women’s Hospital. What else does he want to achieve?
“Firstly, to make sure I leave it in a better place than I found it – stronger and more successful,” says Khan. “Secondly, making sure we’re promoting Birmingham and the region as a centre of legal excellence to capture inward investment and growth.
“Thirdly, to help raise the profile of the economic and social value provided by the legal profession to the city and region. And fourthly, to improve the connectivity between the city’s legal, financial and professional business services to speak with one voice to better promote the sector and the city [where GBOV comes in].”
Khan lives in Hall Green, Birmingham, with his wife Samina, a primary school teacher, and describes himself as a man of many layers: “I’m a Brummie. I’m English. I’m British. I’m a European. I’m of Pakistani heritage. Not necessarily all in that order, but that gives you an idea.”
It’s this eclectic background that’s driving Khan to make a success of the soon-to-be-launched GBOV lobbying group: “These are such exciting times for the region, but it will be so easy to get left behind. That’s why I want [GBOV] to be playing a part in driving the city. Members of all our organisations will be feeding in ideas about what we’re facing as a city. We’ll make statements, exert influence and suggest positive ideas – and we’ll be able to say this is based on what our members are saying.
“It needs to be brave and have traction so it gets people sitting up and listening. But I don’t want it to be a barrier. I want it to be an enabler. We’ll be saying: ‘Have you thought about this, and this?’ They will be powerful suggestions, based on what our members think, and what we think as a collective. This sort of influence is key to the city that I love, the city that deserves better.”
Although Greater Birmingham One Voice is the working title, Khan admits this detail may change. But whatever its final name, he’s determined to launch it: “We have the mandate. We want our unified, powerful voice to help the region grow. It’s not going to happen if we leave it in the hands of politicians.”