New Year, new stability?
Some encouraging export figures; workshops assist local retailers; the onus on Government to work with business; and a Ministerial visit puts transport infrastructure issues in the spotlight
James Ramsbotham CBE
Some of the characters of Dickens’ great novel Christmas Carol have inspired my first column of this decade, although I am hoping the Chancellor doesn’t intend to emulate Scrooge at Budget time.
We definitely experienced the Ghost of Christmas Past rattling his chains with the impact of Brexit on our economy. Our latest export figures highlighted opportunities but also the challenges of leaving the EU.
The figures showed that our trade with the rest of the world outside the EU has increased, led by a 42 per cent increase in exports to the Middle East. This is good news. However, we should treat these results with a hint of caution as global activity is plagued by volatility. Our survey indicates that this will continue, so we urge the Government to make it a priority to provide real support for international trade.
On a positive note, I am delighted to report that the Ghost of Christmas Present, with his bonhomie and generosity, was definitely there in the spirit of our retail workshops organised with Newcastle Building Society.
Ambitious high street retail businesses in North Tyneside are currently benefiting from fantastic advice on how to attract more customers and improve their profitability. In the first session, John Lewis staff very kindly shared their extensive window display knowledge which was extremely useful for the retailers, in particular during the peak Christmas shopping period.
This project built on our detailed report on how to improve town centres and what needs to be done to support our high street retailers, in particular independent traders.
After the vagaries of 2019, I know we are all keen to know what 2020 will hold for us. Our latest Quarterly Economic Survey results included your views on trading conditions for the coming months and, although they didn’t include a visitation of the Ghost of Christmas Future, they did ring bells of the alarming kind.
Results for the end of last year show the direction of the regional economy; continuing a trend we saw in the third quarter. Investment has slowed down dramatically and export sales continue to disappoint.
Our survey was conducted during the election campaign and it is clear to see that political and economic uncertainty is creating real difficulties for business.
Now, in the New Year, we hope that stability will ensue and that confidence will return. However, Government should see these results as a stark indicator of the need to secure a positive Brexit outcome that supports our international traders. They must turn warm words on regional investment into swift actions.
We did take some heart from the Queen’s Speech which raised the hope that encouraging investment and rebalancing could now be a serious part of the next Government’s agenda.
It will be important that promises are delivered properly, not just ideologically. Government should look to work with business if it wants to tackle these issues seriously and with clarity so that business can prepare and grow with confidence in the future.
We were given the perfect opportunity to put this view forward, and also set out the case for significant investment in the region’s transport infrastructure, earlier this month during a meeting with Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps.
The meeting, organised by us and hosted by Womble Bond Dickinson, allowed our members including transport operators, infrastructure providers and companies who rely on transport networks in order to do business, to discuss a range of issues. We particularly focused on the urgent need to invest in key
rail infrastructure such as HS2 and the East Coast Main Line; supporting the aims of the Chamber’s Fast Track East Coast campaign.
We emphasised our significant aviation, maritime, road and rail assets and our requirement for better public transport, ensuring that the Secretary of State understood that the lack of historic investment in the region’s infrastructure has prevented us from reaching our economic potential for far too long. We were, therefore, pleased to hear the commitments given by the Minister to improving this situation as part of Government’s drive to address the productivity challenge facing our country.
There are certainly challenges ahead, driven home by the recent announcement from Hitachi. Despite the heavy blow of job losses, we possess a tremendous asset in this state-of-the-art £100m plant. It is one of the most advanced in Europe with an established successful UK-wide supply chain. Building on our conversation with the Transport Minister we now call on the Government to increase investment in our rail network (particularly HS2) with trains built by Hitachi to really deliver economic ‘levelling up’ for the North East.
I am very aware that there are other businesses in our region who are similarly having to rethink their business model and exploit different opportunities to those they anticipated.
In this new decade we want to celebrate them and spread news of their successes, highlighting the type of ‘roll up your sleeves and lets crack on’ culture that exist here in North East England. In order to do this, we have launched our Chamber Business Awards. More details are on our website. Please enter these awards and help us to celebrate your achievements.
I wish you all the very best of luck in 2020.