As Brexit looms, business and government must work together

I like to start the new year with a positive attitude, but two recent reports painted a bleak picture at the start of 2020 and rather dented my optimism.

The latest quarterly economic survey from the British Chambers of Commerce showed the UK ended 2019 in stagnation, against a background of a slowing global economy, rising business costs and long-term uncertainty.

The report showed that indicators for manufacturing and export orders have been negative for two consecutive quarters for the first time in around a decade, while the number of manufacturers planning to invest in plant and machinery hit an eight-year low.

The service sector saw all its key indicators worsen compared to the third quarter of 2019 and investment intentions remain weak by historic standards.

At the same time, in her new year message, my colleague Dr Liz Cameron, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce chief executive, was equally downbeat. Years of Brexit uncertainty following on from the banking crisis has left Scottish businesses battered and crying out for some much-needed consistency and regularity, she said.

With the start of our departure from the EU just days away now, Liz says firms are facing up to an urgent need to internationalise and target new markets for sales and growth. At the same time, they face other issues, including the retaining and recruiting staff, an inability to plan ahead and uncertainty over future investment.

I echo Liz’s words, that this is a time for business and government to work more closely together as we move into the unknown in many ways while the rules of global trade are being re-written.

As the Brexit goalposts continued to be moved, Inverness Chamber of Commerce stepped up its efforts to help our members get ready for the countdown for leaving. We expanded our team of international staff to extend the range of advice and training on importing and exporting that will be needed to trade overseas in future.

We also became the first Scottish chamber to introduce the cloud-based EdgeCTP software system to help SMEs streamline operations and comply with future trade rules and tariffs.

As part of the Scottish and British chambers network, Inverness Chamber is also ready to partner with both the Scottish and UK governments to meet key challenges, including ensuring existing and future employees have the necessary skills to deal with what lies ahead.

We wholeheartedly support calls for investment to make education and training a lifelong commitment. This will ensure our existing and future workforces remain relevant and able to compete in changing circumstances and therefore help economic growth.

In the Highlands, we must also retain and improve investment in our infrastructure, both physical and digital, to ensure this is a place where people want to live, work or visit and where we can do business with any part of the world at a time of rapid technological change.

The time for catchphrases is over. The UK Government’s first post-Brexit Budget is due in March and we are being promised billions of pounds on new projects. We will be looking closely at the proposals to ensure Scotland and the Highlands gets its share of resources to allow us to reverse recent trends.