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City Deals need focus and unity to succeed

Terry smiling headIt looked at one stage that it would be kicked into the proverbial long grass until Westminster ministers last week signed off for their holidays by confirming the Edinburgh region’s billion pound City Deal.

Within hours came the rustling of press releases from all corners of Fife, the Borders and the Lothians from those eager to get their hands on the cash. But are we expecting too much from the new money?

The experience elsewhere shows that it can be put to good use. Glasgow, for instance, is using its City Deal for an ambitious transformation of the Clyde waterfront that ought to have been done 20 years ago but is now, hopefully, coming to fruition.

As detailed in our feature on the Edinburgh funding, there are high hopes of it having a major impact on technology (Daily Business 22 July)Edinburgh University and Queen Margaret University see the Deal as unleashing the next wave of research into two key sectors for Scotland: data science and food and drink.

The data revolution is worth an estimated £20 billion to Scotland’s economy and Scottish Enterprise estimates it could attract an additional 1,500 jobs from inward investment alone by 2020.  The talk is of turning Scotland into the data capital of Europe by 2025.

This is lofty talk, but setting the bar at the highest level at least gives the country a fighting chance of getting among the world’s leading players.

It’s not as if we’re at the starting gate. Scotland has already transformed its food and drink industry and has hopes of doubling its value by 2030. Technology is emerging as an important feature of the Edinburgh economy to rank alongside finance and tourism.

One niggling concern is that there are too many noses in the trough. The pot of cash now offer is also being assigned to infrastructure, housing, skills development, transport and culture. Given that it cost £1.35 billion to build the Queensferry Crossing it is clear that we are asking a lot if we expect the City Deal to make a tangible difference to all the projects it is expected to support.

Then there’s the political factor. Already there is disunity among the new partners with the SNP today accusing the Westminster government of selling Scotland short.

It says the Scottish Government has invested 33% more than the UK Government in the four City Deals across Scotland and is calling on the UK government to “stump up” the difference. 

This is petty point-scoring at a time when the two governments should, for once, show they can work together for the good of everyone.

Law firm mergers: good or bad for Scotland?

Maclay Murray & Spens last week confirmed what had been talked about in legal circles for years by finally sealing a merger.

The firm once strode the corporate legal market in Scotland virtually untouched alongside rivals such as Dundas & Wilson and McGrigor Donald. Like those venerable names Maclay Murray & Spens will be consigned to history once its “combination” with the US practice Dentons completes this year. (Daily Business 21 July).

Last week’s announcement was full of the usual puff about creating a global champion and giving it a unique position. Well, that may be so for those clients who need to do regular business around the world. What these mega-mergers also do is create an opening for the next generation of smaller and mid-sized law firms which can play on their local attachments.

In recent years we have seen a number of newly formed practices emerging: Gilson Gray, Law at Work, Vialex. They are growing quickly and establishing a foothold in a market which is being re-drawn into the big players: on the one side Pinsent Masons, Addleshaw Goddard (which acquired HBJ Gateley after failing to merge with Maclays) and now the Dentons/Maclays combo. On the other side are the indigenous practices, of which the biggest is Brodies, along with Dickson Minto, Morton Fraser, Shepherd & Wedderburn and Anderson Strathern.

Clients will choose according to their needs and one big plus from this new shopping trolley of legal goodies is that there is a size and range of expertise to suit everybody. More firms are hiring staff with cross-border credentials and more are looking to serve growing sectors of the economy.

Scotland’s corporate legal sector changed significantly with the shift in control and decision making at big clients such as the banks and insurance companies. It has forced many of them to find new alliances in order to keep up with emerging industries but also to maintain their workload.

The next moves may be to revisit the multi-disciplinary practice model that was much discussed a decade ago.

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