Sir John Peace, former chief executive of Burberry to Experian group GUS Plc, has led a more varied life than most industrialists to emerge from the City of London.
Son of a Nottinghamshire coal miner, a former Sheriff of the county (he once made a small boy cry after he jokingly threatened to throw him in the dungeons under Nottingham Castle) and a self-confessed computer ‘nerd’, he also chaired one of Britain’s oldest banks, Standard Chartered.
But he says his heart has always remained in the Midlands, which he complains has been starved of investment for decades. Now it’s payback time. ‘We desperately need to be bold as a country,’ says Peace, who is among the business heavyweights now leading calls for the Prime Minister to give Britain’s 11 million Midlanders the game-changing high speed rail link, HS2.
Hands-on: Sir John Peace, former boss of Burberry, wants Britain to be bolder in the decisions it makes
‘It’s a tough decision. I think it’s going to be one of the biggest decisions Boris faces – £100 billion or so. But remember, these things are not going to happen in two or three years. We are the new Victorians here: investing for the next 100 years. That’s the difference of mindset the Treasury needs.’
Often overlooked – perhaps even forgotten in the battle for Treasury cash between the North and the South – Peace is adamant that people in the Midlands have been left to their own devices for too long.
‘Everywhere you look we desperately need to invest and improve our mass transit systems. But the difference in the Midlands and the North is the extent of some of the social issues: social mobility, child poverty. And the only way you are going to address those is improving connectivity, faster trains, yes, but more convenient connectivity to some of those smaller places. If you’re not going to do that, you are not going to move forward as a country.
‘HS2 is the biggest single infrastructure project in Europe, let alone the UK – so going ahead with that sends out the right signals, not just nationally, but internationally. Now we’re leaving the EU we’ve got to look again at how we operate. It’s exciting in some ways, scary in others too. But more than anything, we need as a country to be confident.’
There is growing speculation Boris could throw his weight behind HS2 in some form – despite resistance from elsewhere in the Cabinet.
Peace points out Network Rail has a budget of £48 billion over the next five years just to maintain the current network. By comparison, the cost of HS2 has been put at £88 billion over the next 20 years, ignoring any economic benefits.
‘If Boris Johnson doesn’t deliver in some of these places that we are talking about, I think he will be in real trouble. Some who voted Conservative will feel betrayed – and I use that word very carefully.’ Peace holds a number of roles in the region. But it is his role as Lord-Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire that he says has taken him to the far corners of the county and seen places where the prosperity showered on the country in recent decades has failed to reach.
We meet in Birmingham, a City of 1.1 million people and one of the places where Peace operates as chair of the Midlands Engine. The regional partnership was set up by former Chancellor George Osborne to provide the Midlands with its own Northern Powerhouse-style structure just months before he was replaced as Chancellor.
‘Here in Birmingham there are cranes all over the city,’ says Peace after a brisk walk outside his office into the biting wind.
‘Much of this is based on the assumption that HS2 is going ahead. Smaller towns throughout the West and the East – Stafford, Stoke, places like that – their whole regeneration plans are based around what you might do with HS2. And when I talk about High Speed 2, I mean what we at the Midlands Engine call High Speed 2 Plus – spreading out across the Midlands through investment in local networks. HS2 on its own won’t cut it.’
He bemoans the state of Britain’s ‘terrible’ rail networks that mean some vital cross-country routes between major cities such as Nottingham and Birmingham are served in some cases by 19th Century station platforms and ageing two-carriage trains.
The Midlands Engine Rail Hub, which was named in the Conservative Party Manifesto, will help solve that and would cost the Government £3.8 billion and improve 70 stations – ‘not expensive’, he says. ‘It’s not about getting from Manchester to London ten minutes quicker. It’s about capacity. This is about coming together, working together. This is not about the Northern Powerhouse versus the Midlands Engine.’
Peace is no stranger to relative hardship. His coal miner father broke his back while working down a Nottinghamshire pit. ‘That left him limited in what he could do. So we were not exactly a rich family.’
But he grew up ‘happy’ and made the most of opportunities. He spent a year learning machine code but was then given a chance at a career in the military with a scholarship at Sandhurst. At the end of it, he says he realised, ‘I really enjoyed being a programmer – in those days you’d have called it being a ‘nerd’.’
Then in 1980 he – and a handful of others – started CCN which would later become credit-scoring giant Experian – now listed on the stock exchange and worth £25 billion.
Peace’s time in the senior ranks of the City was not without controversy – clashing with investors more recently at Standard Chartered and Burberry. The bank has also drawn fire for its dealings in war-torn regions including Afghanistan where at one point ‘the one branch we had was blown up’.
He says his time at Standard Chartered made him realise Britain still has an ability to connect places: ‘We have a lot of things to be proud of – phenomenal trading links around the world, India, China, the Middle East. But somehow they’ve gone to sleep and we need to reawaken them.
‘We’ve got to now do things differently. We didn’t make it easier for ourselves but the opportunity is bigger. This is a question of risk and reward.’
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