THE RECENT conduct of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has led to fears that the future of the UK’s business relationships with Europe are of secondary interest to senior government ministers.
A strongly-worded statement from the CBI, warning policy makers to ‘focus on business priorities and put evidence above political ideology’ was greeted with Mr Johnson remarking ‘f**k business’.
Those remarks were preceded by the Foreign Secretary being recorded saying that the border with Ireland was a minor issue of little consequence in the context of Brexit.
The CBI subsequently suggested that it will ensure negotiators on both sides ‘are well equipped with the unequivocal economic facts’.
Whether the facts fit the Foreign Secretary’s preconceptions of what Brexit might mean for the UK’s businesses is open to question.
AIRBUS RAISES STAKES
A similar gap between reality and ideology was exposed by the warning from Airbus that – in order to continue to comply with the European regulatory framework – it might have to move its base of operations from Broughton in Clwyd, where it supports 6,500 directly employed jobs and businesses and the economy over a much wider area.
In the absence of a Brexit agreement, UK aerospace companies will not be covered by existing approvals. More than 10,000 original aircraft parts originate in the UK, the manufacture of which is covered by tight regulations requiring certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Should a single parts supplier not be certified, its parts cannot be installed and aircraft will not be delivered.
If a supply chain agreement is not reached with the EU, the consequences for the aviation industry selling into the EU trading bloc will be a disaster for the UK.
BUSINESSES TOLD TO BUTT OUT
However, the unwelcome intervention of facts in the Brexit narrative roused Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to tell the BBC’s Andrew Marr that talking about job losses risked undermining the government in its negotiations with the EU.
“It was completely inappropriate for businesses to be making these kinds of threats, for one simple reason. We are in a critical moment in the Brexit discussions. We need to get behind Theresa May to deliver the best possible Brexit, a clean Brexit.”
Mr Hunt’s comments were supported by leading Brexit enthusiast Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, who also suggested that businesses warning the government based on their own detailed knowledge of the regulatory regimes under which they work were somehow placing the UK Government’s negotiating position – which is as yet both unknown and possibly undetermined – at risk.
The key economic issue for businesses is ensuring the sort of continuity in trading arrangements which secures jobs and encourages investment. Large businesses need a significant amount of time to make decisions on the allocation of resources, particularly in the face of unpredictable trade policy by twitter approach of the US Government. Short of certainty, and faced with a capricious transatlantic trading partner which scraps trade agreements and treaties at short or no notice, businesses are understandably twitchy about their inability to plan and the absence of meaningful interaction with them by the UK Government’s crack Brexit team.
In a carefully-phrased statement to MPs, Business Secretary Greg Clark told MPs: “Any company and any industry that supports the livelihoods of so many working people in this country is entitled to be listened to with respect.
“The government has been clear that we are determined to secure a deal with the EU that meets the needs of our aerospace firms and the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on them.”
IRISH TRADE KEY FOR WEST WALES
Meanwhile, businesses have struck back at the apparent indifference of the UK Government’s key Brexit ministers to the interests of businesses which stand to be affected directly should the UK reach no regulatory deal – or a poor regulatory deal – with the EU.
Business groups the CBI, Chambers of Commerce, Federation of Small Business, the Employers’ Federation, and the Institute of Directors are placing pressure on the government to reach agreement on trade, customs, and immigration.
Pembrokeshire’s MPs, Simon Hart in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and Stephen Crabb in Preseli Pembrokeshire, are in an intriguing position over the issue of Irish trade.
With major ferry ports in Pembroke Dock and Fishguard, both Conservatives have a dog in the race to ensure that trade with the Republic of Ireland is at least maintained at current levels.
100,000 lorries were carried to Ireland via ports in Pembrokeshire in 2015. Any disruption of that trade, by the introduction of customs and immigration checks for example, would significantly reduce the attractiveness of west Wales’ ports to businesses trading with Ireland. That is not, however, a one way street. The Irish Government is also keen to maintain access to the UK as an access point to mainland Europe.
While the ports are not in themselves major employers, the ‘ripple effect’ of any loss or reduction in through traffic and any subsequent job losses could be significant. And concerns have been magnified by Stena’s decision to scrap a significant investment plan in Fishguard.
When we asked to respond to the Foreign Secretary’s views on the Irish Border issue and the importance of trade with Ireland to Pembrokeshire, Simon Hart said: “I have spoken (very informally) to [Boris Johnson] to make that point, which he says he recognises. The border issue might be minor in the overall context of Brexit but it is nonetheless very important.”
Stephen Crabb told us: “I have said right from the start that the issues over trade between the UK and Ireland, including the question of the Northern Ireland border, are some of the most complex and important of the Brexit negotiations.
“For us in Pembrokeshire it is important because of our trade links with Rosslare and I have raised this matter with Ministers in Ireland, the Cabinet in Westminster. The commitment that the Prime Minister has given that there will be no additional trade barriers for East-West trade between the UK and Ireland is crucial and reflects the points that I and others have been putting to her.”
Enterprising Students win £10K prize
A NEW venture designed to help Colombian farmers improve crop productivity is the winner of the latest edition of Aberystwyth University’s ‘Dragon’s Den’ style student entrepreneurship competition InvEnterPrize.
Developed by an interdisciplinary team led by PhD student Liliana Castillo from Colombia, Amigrow uses satellite technology and machine learning to assist farmers with decision making.
Along with the 2019 InvEnterPrize title, Amigrow receives £10,000 to invest in the development of the concept to bring it closer to market.
Speaking of the team’s success, Liliana said: “Winning InvEnterPrize is very important to us, there are no words to describe the feeling.”
“This idea started with my experience of agriculture in Colombia. With the support of InvEnterPrize, my team and I look forward to start testing the capabilities of Amigrow. We are going to develop the first prototype and create iterations of it so that we can really know what works and what doesn’t, and produce something meaningful for the farmers so they can take the right decisions at the right time and produce better profit margins.”
Liliana added: “Colombia is a very diverse country, we have very different environments for very different kinds of crops. Initially, we are going to start with rice producers as it is very important for feeding people in Colombia and in the world.”
Amigrow was one of 15 entries for InvEnterPrize 2019, and six finalists to present their ideas to the judges on Friday 29 March 2019.
Chair of the judges, Donald Davies, Emeritus Professor in Toxicology at Imperial College London, said: “We are delighted to award InvEnterPrize 2019 to Amigrow and our warmest congratulations to Liliana and her team on their venture.”
“InvEnterPrize is an excellent competition which brings out the best in the students, and this year has proved to be the most difficult to judge with all six finalists delivering excellent presentations. It clearly inspires students here at Aberystwyth University to venture and develop ideas that go beyond what they might normally do. It is so important to sow the seed of an idea that students can develop into a business, and this competition, along with the support the teams receive throughout the year from the University’s Careers service, makes this all possible.”
InvEnterPrize organiser and Aberystwyth University entrepreneurship champion, Tony Orme, said: “The quality of the entries this year has been exceptional and the final proved to be a very close run indeed. We are immensely grateful to our panel of judges for their valuable time and expertise in this year’s search for a winner, and to the University’s alumni who make this competition possible via the Aber Fund. We now look forward to working with Liliana and colleagues on Amigrow, as the concept is developed.”
Amigrow also enjoyed further success at InvEnterPrize 2019 as it won a year’s office space at AberInnovation – the Aberystwyth Innovation and Enterprise Campus, a £40.5m development at the Aberystwyth University Gogerddan Campus.
Presented by Dr Rhian Hayward, Chief Executive Officer of AberInnovation, the award was given for the best presentation in the bioscience, agri-tech, and food and drinks sectors.
Now in its 6th year, InvEnterPrize was established to further encourage a culture of entrepreneurship among the University’s students.
The £10,000 prize provided by the University’s alumni via the Aber Fund enables the winner to invest in equipment, facilities or professional services to turn the invention or business start-up idea into reality.
Entrants also had the opportunity to seek expert advice and attend a series of workshops and presentations led by successful entrepreneurs as they developed their final bids, gaining valuable advice on the way.
Backing for two City Deal business cases
MEMBERS of the Swansea City Deal’s Economic Strategy Board are supporting a call for immediate approval of two major Swansea Bay City Deal projects.
The Economic Strategy Board (ESB), made up of private sector business persons appointed to the ESB say they want to help get the ‘Yr Egin’ and Swansea City and Waterfront Digital District projects over the finish line.
Their support comes after an independent review into the £1.3 billion Swansea Bay City Deal found that the businesses cases for these two projects are ‘fit for purpose’.
The same review also found serious problems with the way in which some business cases were prepared, describing them as little more than glossy marketing exercises devoid of detail and substance.
The Economic Strategy Board is made up of experts in key City Deal themes like energy, manufacturing, skills, life sciences, and business.
Chaired by Ed Tomp, the Vice-President and General Manager of Valero UK in Pembrokeshire, private sector board members include Scarlets chairman Nigel Short, retired consultant surgeon oncologist Simon Holt, and Pobl Group chief executive Amanda Davies.
Chris Foxall, finance director of Welsh car manufacturer Riversimple, and James Davies, Industry Wales executive chair, also sit on the board.
As well as an independent review, an internal review commissioned by the City Deal’s Joint Committee has also been completed to ensure governance is robust.
It found it wasn’t and described a breakdown in trust between the public sector partnership members.
The Economic Strategy Board provides strategic direction for the City Deal and advises the Joint City Deal Board.
Its functions include overseeing the production of project business cases and making recommendations for approval.
Mr Tomp said: “The Economic Strategy Board welcomes the publication of the reviews into the City Deal.
“Both include a number of recommendations which should speed up the City Deal’s delivery for the benefit of residents and businesses across South West Wales.
“Among the recommendations endorsed by the Economic Strategy Board is the immediate approval of the ‘Yr Egin’ and Swansea City and Waterfront Digital District projects, so we’ll do all we can to help with that process.
“The first phase of the ‘Canolfan S4C Yr Egin’ development is a terrific example of how state-of-the-art office and networking spaces can support our creative industries, while the Swansea project will combine world-class entertainment and 21st-century business facilities with cutting-edge digital infrastructure.”
Canolfan Yr Egin was never part of the City Deal and was tacked on after its construction was already underway. The involvement of the City Deal in the project is a fig leaf for UWTSD’, which despite promising it could deliver the project without public subsidy, went cap in hand to the Welsh Government when it couldn’t.
Public funding for Yr Egin was agreed by Economy Secretary Ken Skates over six months before the City Deal was even signed.
Mr Tomp continued: “Approval of these business cases as soon as possible would help maintain private sector confidence in the City Deal while showing the commitment of all partners to work together for the good of the Swansea Bay City Region.
“In the meantime, we’ll also continue to help progress business cases for the nine other projects due to be part City Deal funded because this investment programme has the potential to transform our region’s economic well-being.”
Chris Foxall said: “The Swansea Bay City Deal is a once in a generation opportunity to kick-start a sustainable regional economic development programme. It’s more than just investment – it’s the start of a journey that will build momentum, confidence and prosperity for our future generations. The City Deal’s breadth of sectoral and geographic coverage will ensure the impact is felt by everyone in the region, and the first two projects will evidence the physical and economic transformation that’s long overdue.”
Construction output falls as productivity shrinks
THE GOVERNMENT and Parliament must break the Brexit deadlock and find a way forward warns the Federation of Master Builder (FMB), in response to the latest Construction PMI data, which shows another drop in construction output.
The March 2019 PMI data revealed an Index score of 49.7, up slightly from 49.5 in February, against the no change threshold of 50.0. This points to a sustained decline in construction output, representing the first back-to-back fall in construction output since 2016. While the residential building sector enjoyed an upturn, commercial construction was the worst performing area.
Commenting on the results, published this morning, Sarah McMonagle, Director of Communications at the FMB, said: “The construction industry is being seriously affected by Brexit uncertainty as evidenced by two very worrying sets of results for construction output in the first quarter of 2019.
“Businesses have been waiting for politicians to come to some resolution for far too long now, and it’s time that this deadlock was broken. It’s not surprising employers are finding it hard to plan for the future, when we don’t even know when, or indeed if, we’re leaving the EU. Today’s results are a reminder of just how vulnerable the construction industry is to political turmoil as confidence among consumers and contractors continues to wobble.”
Ms McMonagle concluded: “Brexit uncertainty and the construction skills shortage have created a perfect storm in our industry.
“Around 9 per cent of construction workers in the UK are from EU countries, but we know from speaking to small construction employers that many of these skilled workers are starting to return, whether that’s because of strengthening economies elsewhere, or that they simply don’t feel welcome anymore. This is compounding an already severe construction skills shortage, and I’m worried that the Government’s post-Brexit immigration system will make it even worse. For example, the system will not allow Level 2 tradespeople to live and work in the UK for more than 12 months at a time. At the same time, the Government’s figures last week show that the number of Level 2 apprenticeship starts among our domestic workforce is dropping.
“It’s quite simply not possible to build the homes and infrastructure we need without bricklayers, carpenters and plasterers. The Government and industry must work together to attract more people into the industry, by offering them high quality training with clear career pathways for progression but in the meantime we need sustained access to tradespeople of all skill levels for the industry to continue being open for business.”
Elsewhere in the economy, the Federation of Small Businesses has expressed concern at the UK’s productivity growth in Q4 of 2018 decreasing for the second consecutive quarter.
Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chairman Mike Cherry, said: “Today’s data highlights yet again the impact of the political and economic uncertainty to the economy.
“Small business confidence has fallen through the floor as firms face a trying time amid a fragile economy.
“While there were some positives in the data such as a 0.4% productivity increase in services, there was a significant 1.1% decrease for manufacturing.
“Small firms are not only contending with unprecedented uncertainty, they are also dealing with a raft of new cost increases and reporting requirements.
“Rising labour costs have continued with the introduction of Making Tax Digital, fresh hikes to business rates and a further increase in auto-enrolment pension contributions.
“In order to improve productivity, key areas that must be addressed include management and leadership, broadband connectivity and the scourge of late payments.
“All this amid the ongoing uncertainty over the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU which shows no sign of reaching a resolution.
“Productivity will only continue to decline unless the Government can do more to step up and back British businesses.”
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