Northern cities must work together to create powerhouse, WYG chief says

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The head of a leading infrastructure consultancy has urged cities to work together to push forward plans for a ‘Northern powerhouse’.

Paul Hamer, chief executive at WYG, told The Yorkshire Post that plans to improve national and regional connectivity present huge opportunities for smaller regional businesses but that many “just aren’t aware of”.

At the Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne announced a package of £7bn of funding for the three Northern regions, with cash earmarked for transport and science development.

Mr Hamer warned against cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Manchester and Liverpool pulling against each other when putting forward the case for better connectivity and regional devolution.

He said: “One of the things we have to be very careful of is that in our appetite for that, is that we don’t end up dividing and conquering.

“You’ll only create a powerful north if all of those places are totally interconnected.”

The design and engineering consultancy, which based in Leeds, is working with the Association of Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) to launch a northern-focused board that will give regional business a voice in the planning and development of major infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail schemes.

Marc Davis, head of discipline for geo-environment and waste resources at WYG, will chair the ACE Northern Region board, which is expected to be launched early in 2015.

Mr Hamer said the board will connect local companies and enable them to “control their own destiny” in matters such as devolution and funding.

It will also make them “acutely aware” of the opportunities available to them in the delivery of these projects.

He said: “I think there’s huge amounts of opportunity that local regional businesses just aren’t aware of. That’s one of the reasons there’s pent up demand we can satisfy.

“WYG will play a significant part in those national programmes but also through our headquarters in Leeds and our association with ACE, I want to make sure we get the Leeds City Region and wider surrounding areas really playing their part.”

Mr Hamer said he would “wholeheartedly support” proposals from Sir John Armitt, which were adopted by the Labour party, to remove politics from infrastructure planning.

Mr Hamer said: “Obviously it’s very difficult to secure funding that runs past political terms, but could you have all-party commitment for a 15-year road programme or a 10-year modernisation of railways? There’s potential there.”

In its interim results to September 30, AIM-listed WYG reported a 35 per cent rise in pre-tax profit to £1.9m and a 10 per cent climb in order book to £95.5m. Revenues were down slightly by £0.7m to £63.2m year-on-year.

With the announcement of business wins after the period end, including a contract for a major new nuclear power plant in Poland, the firm’s order book now stands at more than £100m, Mr Hamer said. WYG also resumed paying an interim dividend with the “small but beautiful” award of 0.3p.

It follows a period of significant restructuring, after the business struggled in the wake of rapid expansion before the 2008 financial crisis. The consultancy now has a 42 per cent bid/win rate, after adopting a strategy of ‘bid less, win more’.

Mr Hamer said WYG will continue to focus on its two main markets: asset creation, which includes the bulk of its UK activities, and international development work, which has seen its revenues in Africa jump from zero to up to £9m in 18 months.

“Knowing and understanding what we’re very good at and making sure we don’t stray out of that has been critical,” he added.

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International expansion is at the heart of WYG’s future strategy, chief executive Paul Hamer said.

In addition to a major nuclear power win in Poland, the group has secured contracts for significant climate change work in Africa.

WYG sees expansion in Africa as a major route to growth, Mr Hamer said.

While the UK business is growing organically at around 10 per cent per year, the international development contracts available for infrastructure in the region present a major opportunity.

“Our ambition is that Africa will become a significant portfolio in terms of our business,” Mr Hamer said. “Potential for us to grow on the back of the funding that’s available is significant.”