Connect merges with Stratagem to build ‘unrivalled’ public affairs offer

Connect merges with Stratagem to build ‘unrivalled’ public affairs offer

  • Projecting £3m revenue, the company will be one of the UK’s leading independents focussed on public affairs
  • Acquisition is first deal by fast-growing Connect since 2016 MBO
  • Gráinne Walsh will lead Stratagem in Belfast and joins Connect’s top team
Andy Sawford, managing partner of Connect; Gráinne Walsh, director of Stratagem;
Quintin Oliver, founder of Stratagem

Connect, the Westminster-based public affairs and planning communications specialist, has today joined with Stratagem, Northern Ireland’s largest public affairs agency. While technically an acquisition, it is positioned as a merger, with Stratagem continuing to operate with its own highly successful brand.   

The initiative comes at a pivotal political moment, with Northern Ireland playing a key role in Westminster politics and Brexit negotiations.

The move grows the overall Connect group team to 35 consultants and its projected group fee income to £3m, making it one of the UK’s largest public affairs focussed agencies that is independently owned.  

Gráinne Walsh, Stratagem’s head of consultancy since 2013, will take over the role of director from Quintin Oliver. Gráinne will lead the Stratagem team in Belfast and become a member of the Connect leadership team. 

Andy Sawford, managing partner of Connect, said: Having grown our income organically by 50 per cent since 2016’s management buyout, Connect has been looking for the right opportunity to catalyse the next phase of our growth. There is a huge opportunity for us and Stratagem to grow together. Connect and Stratagem are a great fit, with closely aligned values, complementary products and services, and a shared commitment to setting high standards. Joining up with Belfast’s biggest public affairs firm creates an unrivalled client offer at a time when Northern Ireland is playing a pivotal role in UK and European affairs.”

Gráinne Walsh, director of Stratagem, said: Today’s news represents an exciting opportunity for Stratagem. We would like to thank and pay tribute to Quintin for his vision in founding Stratagem and leadership to make us Northern Ireland’s number one public affairs agency. Quintin’s dedication and passion for politics and our business has seen Stratagem thrive and deliver outstanding results. These are changing times in politics and public policy, and it is now the right time for Stratagem to become part of a UK wide team with Connect and broaden our client offer.” 

Quintin Oliver, founder of Stratagem, explained: Stratagem has defined the public affairs market in Northern Ireland ever since the Good Friday Agreement two decades ago. Bringing Stratagem together with Connect makes huge sense at this stage, with talks underway, hopefully for the Assembly and Executive to return, and with the Brexit drama unfolding around us, across these islands.   

The joint business will bring added scale, investment and strong relationships with key policy-makers, opinion-formers and political institutions. I am pleased that the team at Stratagem will continue, headed by Gráinne Walsh and I wish them well as I now take a step away to concentrate on other projects.”

Andy Sawford
Andy Sawford
Jenrick savagely puts down Khan’s London Plan

Jenrick savagely puts down Khan’s London Plan

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick today issued a brutal rejection of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Plan, the proposed framework for development in the capital.

Much like a teacher chastising an under-achieving student, Jenrick has declared that housing delivery under Khan’s mayoralty has been “deeply disappointing” and “falls far short of what the people of London expect, deserve and need.” He goes on to blame this failure of housing delivery for “worsening affordability for Londoners”.

Key points behind the Housing Secretary’s rejection of the Plan:

• It delivers only 52,000 homes a year against the identified need of 66,000 homes.
• It is too complex and will reduce appetite for development.
• It directly contradicts national planning policies.

The tone of the letter really is remarkable in the scorn Jenrick shows. The best example is perhaps his citing of a policy on bed linen to evidence the complexity of the Plan, which Jenrick says will “make development more difficult”. He also criticises the Mayor’s flagship estate regeneration reform- the requirement of a residents’ ballot to secure grant-funding- describing it as “onerous”.

The timing of Jenrick’s letter was no doubt very deliberate. With the Mayoral election just around the corner, the Housing Secretary is robustly challenging a key plank of Khan’s re-election campaign- that the election should be a referendum on rent controls and making housing costs more affordable for Londoners. Jenrick is effectively saying to Khan that he is responsible for the affordability crisis through his failure to deliver homes.

Ironically though, given the COVID-19 crisis and the potential for the elections to be postponed until later in the year the timing may have been scuppered.

Jenrick’s conclusion is that the London Plan is not fit to be published and his direction to the Mayor is to go back to the drawing board. The Government’s view is that the Mayor has failed on housing delivery and will continue to do so with this plan- and that message has been delivered with absolutely no subtlety at all…

Connect Comms
Government reconfirms direction of travel for planning policy but offers few new details

Government reconfirms direction of travel for planning policy but offers few new details

Since the Conservatives secured their majority in December 2019, the Government have consistently trailed that increasing the number of homes across the country and boosting housing supply is a key priority.

Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick today set out plans to reform the planning system to speed up development, encourage homes to be built more quickly and to facilitate greater involvement of communities who are affected by planning decisions. This builds on some of the announcements by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak in the Budget on 11 March, which included investment in affordable housing and development of brownfield sites.

How planning reform will likely happen will be set out in the Planning White Paper, which Jenrick says will come in ‘the Spring’. But the Government has revealed some of the measures to be included, indicating a clear priority is to make the planning system quicker and more efficient. It was announced that the White Paper will include reform of planning fees to increase the capacity and resources of local authorities to review and grant permissions to avoid delay – frequent point of frustration for developers.

Jenrick also announced measures to allow for automatic rebates of planning fees where applications are successful at appeal. This would place greater pressure on Planning Committees across the country to be far more considered about those schemes that they dislike or are unpopular but that are largely policy compliant.

The Government has also indicated that they want to see a step change in the production and adoption of Local Plans. They have set a deadline for all councils to have adopted their Local Plan by 2023, with Government intervention if they fail to do so – exactly how remains unsaid.

Other notable measures announced by the Secretary of State today include:

• Developers encouraged to build upwards and above stations.
• Proposals being considered to turn disused buildings into homes more quickly.
• Ensure that land for housing is actually delivered through greater transparency on land ownership.
• Expand the use of zoning tools to support local areas to simplify the process of granting planning permission for residential and commercial development.
• New map of brownfield sites to make the most of unused land.
• Improve the effectiveness and role of Compulsory Purchase Orders.

At no point did Jenrick mention of the Green Belt in his statement.

We will have to wait for the White Paper for further details and measures to be taken. The Government has been consistently keen to present their plans for reform of the planning system as radical, and certainly some of what has been trailed gives the sense that they are serious. The White Paper will confirm if the detail will live up to this.

Jimmy Coles
Jimmy Coles
Launch of the Women and Work APPG’s Annual Report on Inclusivity and Intersectionality

Launch of the Women and Work APPG’s Annual Report on Inclusivity and Intersectionality

As secretariat to the Women and Work All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), Connect is proud to launch the APPG’s Toolkit and Annual Report on Inclusivity and Intersectionality. Read more

Hannah Patterson
Hannah Patterson
What now?

What now?

Ten points on what happens now:

  1. Boris Johnson will start forming his new Government over the weekend. Most of the current Cabinet could be reappointed but briefs will be reshuffled. Michael Gove, who has had a good election, is tipped to become International Trade Secretary. Former Defence Secretary, Penny Mordaunt will hope for a return, while rising stars, such as Rishi Sunak, who represented the party in election tv debates, could be promoted.
  2. Parliament meets next week. MPs start ‘swearing in’ on Tuesday and the Queens Speech takes place next Thursday 19th December, setting out the Government’s priorities.
  3. Boris Johnson’s ‘Brexit Deal’ with the EU will be put before Parliament on Friday 20th December and will be approved with a big majority. The EU Parliament will approve the deal in early January and the UK will be out of the EU by 31st January 2020, with a ‘transition period’ to the end of the year.
  4. Brexit thoughts then turn to negotiating the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU. The timing is a challenge – trade deals usually take many years to negotiate. The draft ‘declaration’ by the UK and the EU, published in late October, envisages “an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership. This partnership will be comprehensive, encompassing a Free Trade Agreement, as well as wider sectoral co-operation… It should facilitate trade to the extent possible, while respecting the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union”. That roughly translates as “it’s complicated”!
  5. Public spending is due to rise.  The Conservative manifesto commits to increase spending on the NHS, education and policing.  It pledges a rise in teachers pay, help for student nurses, and pensions to rise by at least 2.5% a year.
  6. Social care reform must be a priority. The Conservative manifesto contains only the principle that no-one will have to sell their home to pay for care, but as a government with a majority and a clear five year term, there will be pressure for a long term solution to the social care crisis.
  7. Climate change featured in all the manifestos, with the Conservative’s pledging to reach net zero by 2050. Linked to this is a pledge to spend £6.3bn on improving the energy efficiency of social housing.
  8. Scottish Independence is on the agenda as far as the triumphant SNP are concerned. Nicola Sturgeon will press Boris Johnson for a timetable for a new referendum.  Johnson will resist.
  9. Labour will spend some time in a blame game and gearing up for a leadership election. Jeremy Corbyn has said he will not lead Labour into the next election and John McDonnel has ruled himself out.  Angela Rayner, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long Bailey and Jess Philipps are all contenders. The Lib Dems also need a new leader after Jo Swinson lost her seat – Layla Moran is the favourite.
  10. We have a stable government and a Parliament that will start to function again. The make up of Parliament has changed significantly and there are many new MPs to engage with, including some who weren’t expecting to be there. However you voted yesterday, we can all celebrate Parliament becoming more equal with the most women MPs ever elected. Assume it is a five year Parliament, develop your engagement plans and, of course, ask Connect to help!
Andy Sawford
Andy Sawford
Connect’s ten seats to watch on election night

Connect’s ten seats to watch on election night

Beneath the headline polling, this election is likely to see significant changes in voting patterns across the UK. Connect has highlighted a range of key seats to look out for on election night and outlined what the results in each of these constituencies might tell us about wider voting trends across the UK.

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Connect Comms
The difficult second album – first look at the Labour manifesto

The difficult second album – first look at the Labour manifesto

Many around the Labour leader credit the 2017 General Election manifesto for limiting the scale of Corbyn’s defeat at that election and their strategy for the 2019 election has placed huge stock in the ability of this manifesto to reframe the campaign. This has been matched by the bold claims the party has made for it, describing it as “the most radical, hopeful, people-focused plan in modern times”. There are undoubtedly significant policy announcements here, many of which are likely to be significant whoever wins the election, but Labour strategists will judge its success by the extent that it shifts the election debate. They have sought to achieve this by a dramatic hardening of tone. Corbyn’s rhetoric has always had a clear ‘us versus them’ dimension but his remarks today place considerably more emphasis on confronting ‘them’, going as far as to welcome the ‘hatred’ of the rich and powerful.

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Dan Simpson
Dan Simpson
Election preview – expect the unexpected

Election preview – expect the unexpected

This is the election where anything could happen. The Conservative Party has a strong poll lead and are favourites at the bookies, but as we know from past experience, there is a long way to go.  Election debates, battle buses, controversies and wall to wall media coverage stand between us and our next government. Remember Theresa May’s disastrous manifesto launch which saw her commanding lead melt away in 2017? There are key moments in every election.  In 2015, Ed Miliband lost his battle with a bacon sandwich and with it, his battle for Number 10.  In 2010, the “I agree with Nick” debates were a breakthrough for the Lib Dems.  Those with longer memories may remember John Prescott’s punch in 2001, or even Jennifer’s ear in 1992. There are 37 days to go.  Expect the unexpected.

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Andy Sawford
Andy Sawford
Influencing strategies in uncertain times

Influencing strategies in uncertain times

In unprecedented times of uncertainty, it can be overwhelming for organisations to navigate their influencing strategy. Here at Stratagem we can help you cut through the noise that can distract from the opportunities.

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Anna Mercer
Anna Mercer
Why the government needs an apprenticeships and skills minister

Why the government needs an apprenticeships and skills minister

Like it or not, Boris’s government has given a new life to the Conservative Party. The recent Cabinet appointments, controversial as some may be, have put the Conservatives at a 10-point lead in some polls and it looks like we’re powering full steam ahead for a No Deal exit.

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Anne Mirkovic
Anne Mirkovic
General Election this Autumn

General Election this Autumn

Boris’s purge has seen some poor and underperforming Ministers leave government.  Who will set the new benchmark for incompetence now that Chris Grayling is out of Cabinet?
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Andy Sawford
Andy Sawford