Somerset Chamber Chief Executive Stephen Henagulph said last week’s general election should give businesses some certainty and welcomed the new-look Government’s pledge that it would invest in infrastructure.
Mr Henagulph was interviewed by both ITV Westcountry and BBC Somerset in the wake of last Thursday’s general election, which saw the Conservatives gain an 80-seat majority.
He stressed that while the Chamber was not political or in favour of one party over another, the lack of decisive action in Westminster over the last 12 months had caused businesses no end of problems. With one party now with a clear majority he was hopeful decisions would finally be made.
“Businesses need certainty; they can’t react to the unknown. This election has given us that certainty,” Mr Henagulph said.
“Businesses can deal with competition, they can deal with changes to legislation or regulation, what they can’t react to is the unknown.
“With the start of Brexit being delivered at the end of January 2020 there will be some certainty.
“We’ve seen businesses across Somerset withholding capital expenditure, expansion on factories, taking on new staff, because they didn’t know what was going to happen. We may only be in the foothills but at least we have some dates.”
He said of Somerset’s 23,500 businesses, 70 per cent employed five people or fewer and their biggest challenge over the last 12 months had been the uncertainty caused by Westminster failing to take action, particularly on the issue of Brexit.
Many businesses, particularly manufacturers, were struggling to find the right skills and labour. They had full order books but the challenge had been finding the labour-force to get the goods off the production line as no-one knew what impact Brexit would have on immigration.
Mr Henagulph added: “Businesses understand it’s going to be a long-haul but there is still EU money that will be available to UK businesses right through until 2023 in current agreements.
“Brexit isn’t going to be instant but there should now be a stick in the ground where we can measure from but we are at the very, very early stages of this Brexit process.”
Mr Henagulph said he had been encouraged to hear that MPs and public sector leaders had been engaging with the British Chambers’ of Commerce (BCC) prior to the election and hoped those discussions would continue.
He also welcomed the Governments pledge to invest in the UK’s infrastructure: “We know our infrastructure in Somerset isn’t brilliant and we know our biggest challenges are digital – we don’t have connectivity and broadband across vast regions of our county.
“If we’re going to be smarter than the Northern Powerhouse and better than the Oxford-Cambridge Arc we’re not going to do it by infrastructure on roads, but we can do it on digital connectivity, that’s what we need. Businesses need to be connected.”
BCC Director General Dr Adam Marshall said the Government must restore business, investor and consumer confidence and said swift and decisive action was needed to avoid a messy and disorderly exit from the EU.
The BCC said businesses’ priorities for the new Government included:
- Avoiding a no-deal exit from the EU and delivering a smooth transition giving firms time to prepare
- Acting rapidly to reform business rates and replace them with a fairer system
- Pressing ahead with improvements to transport infrastructure including HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and additional capacity at Heathrow
- Investing in our skills base and reforming the Apprenticeships Levy so that more small firms can access high-quality training locally, at affordable cost
- Delivering a sensible immigration system that gives firms access to essential overseas talent at all levels