What are the needs and challenges for businesses in the South West during the next year?
Here, Ian Mean, Business West Gloucestershire director and former editor of the Western Daily Press, questions Phil Smith, managing director of Business West.
Ian Mean: What does business need from the government as we start 2022?
Phil Smith: My main message is that government must stop treating private sector businesses as a milch cow simply to support an ever-growing public sector.
In foreign trade relations, we simply must sort out our relationship with the EU, and France specifically which has become very petty. Global trade is generally more difficult over recent years so there is even more reason to make the UK be seen as far more acceptable in the world.”
IM: Does business now need to live with Covid?
PM: I think we do have to live with it. This time, I am worried that some of the businesses that are currently suffering might never come back from this latest Covid wave. Many in the hospitality sector who were already short of cash have been dealt a crippling blow at their busiest periods, just when they needed Christmas to recover their losses.
Fighting to stay in business through Covid, companies need more clarity from the government more quickly as has happened in Wales and Scotland.
Businesses take time to cancel supplies, stop production lines and stand down staff. Even if it is bad news, being told as soon as possible is a must.
IM: What are the big projects in the South West that excite you?
PM: The whole green economy sector is very exciting for this region. Whilst the sun is in short supply, this region is blessed with wind, waves, currents, tides and some leading businesses in this field.
It would be great to see government sponsorship of big projects such as the proposed fusion plant at Berkeley or an electric car plant at the Gravity sire in Somerset or even at last some way of capturing power from the tidal reach of the Severn Estuary. I also am interested to see what will happen in city centres during the coming year. How business, local authorities and government will respond to the working from home pattern as a result of Covid, and the knock-on medium term impact this will have on our city centre economies
IM: How important is the new Western Gateway Powerhouse?
PM: I see the Western Gateway partnership as a great opportunity for us but a lot depends on what Michael Gove and the government decide as to the best way to .devolve power from Whitehall.
However, whatever route they take, ambition to level up this country will take more than one government’s change of policy. It will take a few generations to redress the balance from the UK tilted towards London and the South East. But we also need to sort out ourselves locally. It is disappointing to watch the unedifying spats that are going on in Bristol and the West of England regarding Mayors when all we want is concerted clear leadership of the public realm.
IM: What is your message from Business West to business–especially SMEs for 2022?
PM: I return to my opening theme-We should not be relying on Big Government to sort out all our problems. The Covid experience has unfortunately pushed us in this direction but it’s ultimately only private-sector enterprise and wealth creation that will move us forward.
We are entering a new industrial era in response to climate change, and whilst government can stimulate with some ‘Grand
Projects’, it is South West businesses who should be forging this future too.
The UK is as well-positioned as any country on the planet to lead in this emerging green and blue economy.
And the South West, in particular, with its natural assets, skill-base and appetite, should be at the vanguard of this next industrial revolution. We must not fluff this amazing opportunity.