Good morning and welcome! We are so delighted to have you all here today. I’ve been in this role just over a year, and what a year it’s been.
Last May, as I arrived at the British Chambers of Commerce, we were all hoping that Covid was behind us, and we were heading for those sunny uplands. To say it hasn’t turned out that way would probably be seen as a great British understatement.
But I am here today in this role because thriving businesses and their pivotal position in building a strong society is my passion.
I grew up on the Wirral where my dad worked for Lever Brothers in Port Sunlight, built of course by Lord Lever Hulme, an early believer in the force of business for good.
And more recently I built and launched the Inclusive Economy Partnership for UK Government, working together with business and civil society to scale social enterprises across the country.
So being here today representing the Chambers of Commerce and their 250-year history of driving the entrepreneurial spirit in our communities, in our places, is truly an honour.
Over the last year, I have travelled the country, meeting our Chambers and business members. From Inverness to Plymouth, from Bristol to Doncaster, to Burnley and Chelmsford via Stoke and Grimsby. Oh and Aberdeen twice! My UK geography has never been better.
And more recently I have started to visit our 79 Chambers across the world with a trip to Amsterdam. I have enjoyed our Great British Railways, and the warmth and greetings of our nations and regions.
I have been treated to ceremonial drumming in Western Europe’s largest Naval Yard; and vegan haggis for breakfast at Glasgow’s COP26. I’m a dab hand at throwing a Stoke pot and fluent in the joys of Southend’s seafront.
The diversity and vibrance of the economies of our regions and nations is something to behold. And across all of these communities, and in communities around the globe, are the Chambers of Commerce, using the power of partnership to support businesses to build connections, and create opportunities.
However, we all know that businesses are facing unprecedented challenges, exacerbated by the conflict in Europe, which follows a once in a lifetime pandemic that literally brought life as we know it to a halt.
Everywhere I go I hear the same stories from businesses.
They tell me about the difficulties they have faced throughout this year.
Increasing cost of raw materials over last summer, supply chain and shipping issues, problems in recruiting people, and by this March spiralling energy prices.
It really is the perfect storm of increasing costs, firmly putting the brakes on recovery.
This will all lead to an overall contraction in the economy over the next six months, with just 0.6% growth expected for the whole of 2023.
Next week we will be publishing the findings from our Quarterly Economic Survey from the second quarter of this year. Our data is telling a bleak story. Less than half – only 43% of firms, are expecting an increase in profitability in the next 12 months.
But there is another side to this story that is often under-reported.
When I speak to businesses I hear one thing – resilience. Business owners got through the pandemic using their ingenuity, taking tough decisions, and holding their nerve.
Now, again, in the face of difficult economic conditions, they are showing their entrepreneurial spirit – innovating, finding solutions, looking forward, and always holding on to an unfailing belief in their own business, even if they are losing faith in the environment around them.
And to me that is inspiring.
And that is what motivates me, and all of us across the Chamber Network, to keep supporting our businesses, to keep speaking to Government and to keep working together to create the conditions for these businesses – your businesses – to thrive.
Power in Partnership
Because there is power in partnership. During the pandemic, the Government listened to businesses, stepped in, and gave vital support just when it was needed – this was a great example of our Network and Government working in partnership.
And, of course, our discussions with Government continue. Ahead of the spring statement we urged the government to temporarily reverse their commitment to raise National Insurance Contributions and to support businesses with energy costs.
However, the Spring Statement was a missed opportunity. We saw some support for business, but the lack of a clear strategic direction meant it did not give clarity or confidence.
This has to change and we are on limited time.
The Government has until the autumn budget to reset, rethink and get their house in order.
Sustainable growth is the best way to bring money back into the Exchequers coffers, to pay for our NHS and our schools, and to build resilient communities.
People, Planet, Progress
Beyond the immediate challenges facing businesses, we must also look to the future. Which is why we are here today to talk about People, Planet and Progress.
All delivered through the Power of Partnership.
The Power of Partnership is alive in every business I have visited in the last year – a partnership between the business and their employees: the people who make that business work.
Businesses want to train, develop and give their staff opportunities to grow.
Last week, we were all impacted by the train strikes and we understand that people are worried about paying their bills.
It’s a challenging time for everyone, and the solution will come from cooperation not confrontation, because the consequences of ongoing strikes will have a major impact on everyone; businesses will struggle, people will lose out and the economy will suffer.
In fact, we are already seeing a drag on economic growth due to the lack of people in our labour market.
Too many businesses are struggling to find the people they need to succeed and grow.
Hotels turning guests away through lack of staff, restaurants limiting their opening times because they can’t find a chef. Just when these businesses are trying to recover from the devastation of the pandemic, they are being held back by a simple lack of people power.
And it’s not just in hospitality – right across the economy, 78% of firms tell us they are struggling to recruit.
Longer-term, efforts to reform the skills system and improve the development of home-grown talent must be a priority, but in the short-term, Government can do more to help firms fill their gaps.
There must be an urgent review of the Shortage Occupation List.
The clue is in the name – there are shortages across the economy that are preventing firms from getting back to growth.
This isn’t a debate about immigration, it’s about measured and controlled steps that can help firms tackle one of their biggest challenges.
A Skills and People Plan
I have seen no greater example of the Power of Partnership over the last year than in the development of the eight Trailblazer Local Skills Improvement Plans, co-ordinated by Accredited Chambers of Commerce.
We are already seeing positive outcomes from this truly collaborative process -– colleges adapting their provision to better meet local needs, and businesses having a renewed focus on the long-term skills they need to succeed.
We want to see a skills plan in the hands of every business leader in the country. Only then will we be able to drive the productivity we need across our workforce.
But, of course, we are also here to talk about our planet. Tackling the devastating effects of climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. Yes, times are tough, but we can’t let a small minority of loud voices derail progress towards a cleaner, greener economy.
All of us have a responsibility to play our part in reducing our carbon emissions, and the time to do that is now.
The journey to Net Zero can be daunting, especially for SMEs who may have fewer resources to dedicate to it. The Chambers of Commerce network is here to help and guide businesses to sources of advice and funding. Grants are often delivered in specific regions, so this local insight is vitally important.
Reducing our carbon footprint is crucial, but we are also helping businesses to innovate through green products and services.
For example, the East Lancashire Chamber led the development of the RedCAT initiative which provides financial and R & D support for businesses to build low carbon technologies.
Many SMEs remain unclear of the steps they can take. We call on government to work with us to deliver a transformation in the advice and support available to businesses.
And the power of partnership can help us achieve it.
We are supporting our businesses through difficult times. But as a Network, our priority is to get back on the road to growth.
The role of Government is to set the conditions that allows the UK to be the best place for our entrepreneurs to start and grow a business.
If we want to give businesses the headroom to invest and grow, there must be no more business tax increases for the duration of this Parliament. Government should incentivise, not hinder, investment in growth.
We want to see all Government departments working together to reflect the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity of business. We want them to build more innovative policies – such as the super-deduction tax incentive we saw last year.
It is these types of ground-breaking ideas that will get us through this difficult period, and provide the foundations for a long-term plan.
Any long-term plan for growth must include growing British exports. The government’s export strategy was an excellent start, but there is much more to do.
I was delighted to be invited by the Secretary of State for International Trade, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, to join her and Ambassador Katherine Tai to speak at the US-UK trade talks. There I presented a practical plan looking at future proofing our supply chains, cutting customs costs and supporting SMEs to get the full value of closer trade links.
Trade is a powerful force for good. We are working hand in glove with the Government on further discussions with countries across the globe, including India, Canada, and the Gulf Corporation Council.
We look forward to the UK-EU relationship stabilising and improving. We need to reduce the red tape and cost burdens currently placed on British businesses to ensure smoother exporting through the TCA.
And alongside these talks, our fantastic Network of 132 Chambers are working hard to connect businesses with new partners and customers, in markets across the globe.
And as I wrap up, before I begin to speak to the Chancellor, I want to remind us all of why we are here. Businesses are run by innovative, dynamic, committed people, in places, across our nations.
What they want to see is a long term, strategic plan for their businesses because that will give them the confidence to invest:
All delivered through the Power of Partnership.
The Chamber Network will continue working to connect, to support and to give a voice to their local businesses;
We will continue to be inspired by the businesses we meet every day and we will work to ensure they have the right conditions to start and grow a business.
My most recent visit was to the new city of Doncaster.
There I heard business owners talk about their place, the sort of place they wanted their young people to grow up in, to work in, to stay in and make their future home.
Because I know what we can all agree on, ladies and gentlemen, is that thriving, sustainable businesses build the strong, vibrant and flourishing communities we all want to live in.