At an EY sponsored event in the historic theatre at the Bristol Old Vic, CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn, welcomed the new government’s, “ambition, optimism and urgency to get things done,” and offered them the helping hand of business.
She spoke of the need to break the gridlock of the last three years and move forward with action on skills, immigration and climate change.
She talked of a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous UK,” and the importance of renewing the relationship with business and government to ensure the success of the 2020s as a decade of renewal.
Good morning, it’s fantastic to be back in the South West.
Thanks to EY for again supporting us today. And once again in this amazing theatre created 250 years ago by 50 local merchants, who were early adopters in seeing the potential for entertainment to flourish alongside enterprise.
They were also early rebels however, impatient with red-tape, and forgot to ask the King for permission, so audiences had to enter through a secret passage.
I’m glad to see you all made it through the front door today.
NEW YEAR, NEW DECADE, NEW GOVERNMENT
We meet at the start of a new year, a new decade and a new government. With the biggest parliamentary majority for almost 20 years, it has an ambitious agenda and commitment to move quickly. There is a lot for us to welcome in this.
And my message back to them is this – business is here to work with you. We share your ambition, your optimism and urgency to get things done.
It is possible – indeed it is essential to break the gridlock of the past three years and get on with the action that is so badly needed on our skills base, infrastructure, climate.
Relaunching the UK globally as a great place to do business.
This is a year of real opportunity and we need to grab it with both hands. The challenge is one of the priorities.
What needs to happen first?
Today, I want to talk about that and the steps we can take to help this region in particular to succeed.
Let’s start with the South West. Since the General Election – and indeed during it – we’ve heard a lot about the North and Midlands – but rather less about the South West.
Now is the time to change that and ensure this region is recognised as being just as vital to the UK’s success. There are so many reasons it should be.
The South West’s centres of excellence – in aerospace, low-carbon energy and technologies, health and life sciences, digital and creative hubs.
Your leading universities pushing boundaries in advanced materials, engineering and manufacturing.
Strong traditional industries as well, like agriculture, trialling smart solutions to improve productivity and protect natural resources and continue to produce some of the finest food and drink in the world.
It was a great pleasure to visit the amazing Yeo Valley dairy yesterday and see the technology investment planned there.
All these sectors hold the key to the UK’s future. And we know what can be achieved when business and government work together. We’ve seen it over decades, and it’s been one of the UK’s greatest strengths.
But in a spirit of new decade, new honesty. It’s a relationship that’s been put to the test – with Brexit a source of division on too many fronts.
Now we have a chance to change that. To renew the relationship between business and government for this new decade.
The Chancellor Sajid Javid has talked about the 2020s as a decade of renewal.
THE REAL WORK STARTS NOW
A once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous UK – for all.
It won’t be easy. But it can be done. And the work starts now.
So back to priorities.
At the CBI, we believe there are two immediate steps the government can take to rebuild confidence in our economy.
The first is in the next stage of trade negotiations with the EU.
We do now have more and very welcome clarity. A government with a clear mandate to leave the EU by 2020. And, with the Withdrawal Agreement set finally to pass, an opportunity to shape the future trade deal in a way that works for our economy.
I also agree with the Prime Minister that pace matters. Rolling deadlines sap confidence.
Business can help get the right deal done fast, by being around the table. The CBI is committed to helping the government secure a deal that protects jobs and growth across all sectors and in the time available – if possible.
We know, for example, that trade in services is crucial to the UK economy, and that an unprecedented agreement with the EU will be needed to keep it competitive.
It’s important, therefore, we ensure the UK has the right trade architecture in place.
So, drawing on our participation in BusinessEurope, the B7, the B20 and the OECD, the CBI has shared its proposals with government for how that framework for future business engagement could work.
And able to hit the ground running as soon as the divorce stage is over – as early as February.
We also stand ready to help cabinet ministers, policymakers, and MPs who will need to consult with companies of every size, sector, and part of the UK, to inform our negotiations with the EU, and beyond.
Build public support. And enable more UK businesses to grow through trade. And we will continue to stress the importance of free and open trade with the EU, our largest trading partner while respecting the government’s desire for a fast trade deal.
Then, just as pressing, is getting the reforms to our immigration system right. Delivering the control that will secure public confidence while being open to the workers' businesses need.
And I know just how important this is to many firms here in the South West.
The region has an ageing population as well as the highest employment rate in the country – this means many businesses in the South West already struggle to fill vacancies, relying on people from around the world to help produce our food, care for us when we’re older, design and build our homes, and bring new ideas into our industries.
Without detailed plans from government, firms are worried about what the new system – which is the biggest change to UK immigration in almost thirty years – will mean for their workforce, and the extra bureaucracy it could create.
Some are also unable to commit to raising their wages bills to meet the possible minimum salary requirement of £30,000.
As a country, we need to get these changes right – the first time.
By rushing or focusing too much on ‘the brightest and the best’ rather than skills at all levels, we could hinder access to professions and trades vital to the UK’s future.
With just under a year to go, the CBI will continue to offer insight and support to the government, as these reforms take shape, and help employers prepare.
Together, we must ensure that the new system will be accessible to all businesses, including SMEs, from day one.
Helping to deliver the mix of skills our economy needs. While at the same time ensuring that we are training our own people in the skills of tomorrow.
A DECADE OF DELIVERY
Both these elements – a good Brexit deal, and the right immigration system – are essential to UK competitiveness.
And, building from that stronger foundation and collaboration between government and business, we can make the 2020s, not just a decade of renewal but one of real delivery empowering regions like the South West to succeed with concrete, sustainable solutions to our country’s biggest long-term challenges.
Let me say a few words about what tackling two of these issues might look like.
TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE
Firstly, climate change.
As wildfires and other extreme weather events shock us from around the world, we can’t put this problem off.
Drawing on the region’s natural assets, low-carbon expertise, and the excellent work of the LEPs, South West businesses can be at the forefront of the UK’s move to net-zero.
Whether by working more sustainably, as firms like Wyke Farm in Somerset and Bristol Airport are demonstrating. Or transforming homes and other infrastructure with clean-energy techs, like Exeter’s, SunGift Energy.
Building world-leading innovation hubs, including Torbay’s EPIC tech cluster and the Bristol Robotics Lab.
To succeed, it will be important to secure the long-term legacy of major projects – such as Hinkley Point C in Somerset and the new energy enterprise zone near Bridgwater – for local people and their communities, extending opportunity beyond the South West’s major cities.
We also need to make the most of the chance that the UN COP26 Climate Change Conference, in Glasgow this year, gives the UK to promote this knowledge and experience globally.
Working with members, the CBI has led the way on climate action for over a decade.
And again, for COP26, we will be the leading business organisation, bringing UK companies together, to contribute solutions and showcase their low-carbon expertise and progress on this incredible world stage.
LEVELLING UP OPPORTUNITY
Finally, I want to talk about levelling up opportunity across the UK. Ensuring that all parts of the UK share in growth and prosperity.
That we have not done this well enough as a country is one of the biting lessons of the last few years. As the Great South West campaign, and the recently created Western Gateway –headed up by Katherine Bennett from Airbus – has the potential to demonstrate, this region can stand and should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.
And every South West LEP is clear about what’s needed to increase productivity and growth.
Most important is access to a better-connected, more resilient transport network. Focusing on upgrades across the M5, a new dual carriageway to ease congestion on the A303, effective and efficient public transport in rural areas and better links to Bristol Airport – to improve travel now. And, for the future, rolling out charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and smart roads.
So we welcome the Chancellor’s recent commitment to increase infrastructure investment.
It is also vital to address skills shortages in the region.
Now, we must ensure the South West gets the funding it needs, to deliver these improvements. And this is why we believe it’s time the government gave the South West its own ministerial champion with a seat in Cabinet, alongside the existing Ministers for the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse.
These ministerial champions could also help prioritise progress on local industrial strategies and plans for further devolution, that the CBI has long called for. Giving local leaders greater clarity on the power and resources needed to help their region thrive.
To conclude, the real work really does start now. With a government committed to acting quickly, and an ambitious domestic and international agenda, setting a tone of can-do and optimism that we share.
This is a chance to shape the course of the river. Solve some of the longstanding economic challenges of our country. And make the 2020s a great decade for the South West and every region and nation of our country.
I look forward to working with all of you to make this a reality.