Cumbria Chamber of Commerce has set out the business priorities for politicians to address in the next Parliament.
Copies of our ‘Manifesto for Business’ have been sent to all six of the county’s sitting MPs ahead of the General Election on June 8.
Chamber Chief Executive Rob Johnston said: “It’s vital that the next government doesn’t sacrifice investment in infrastructure on the altar of reducing the budget deficit.
“We support the principle that the UK must live within its means, but there’s a huge difference between borrowing to fund investment in transport or energy, for example, and borrowing to cover day-to-day spending.
“We need investment in roads, railways, broadband and new power stations to allow the UK economy to thrive. That’s investment to bring a return.
“The key one for us in Cumbria is nuclear power, where problems at Toshiba threaten to undermine the plan for a power station at Moorside, Sellafield.
“Government must step up the plate and invest directly in Moorside. This plant will generate 7% of the UK’s electricity and cannot be allowed to fail.”
The Chamber’s document also proposes tax reforms – including a replacement for business rates – to incentivise business investment.
And it calls for more affordable housing, reforms to the education system to increase the supply of skilled workers and for a flexible immigration system to allow businesses to recruit abroad after Brexit.
Read the document in full below.
TAX, SPENDING, INCENTIVES AND REGULATION
Efforts to reduce the budget deficit must not come at the expense of investment in infrastructure.
There is an important distinction to be made between governments borrowing to fund day-to-day revenue spending, and borrowing to invest in transport, telecoms and energy to make the UK more efficient and competitive.
The last government concentrated on reducing Corporation Tax as a strategy for making the UK a business-friendly environment.
While this is welcome, it is too crude an instrument.
Targeted interventions are needed to boost productivity, such as tax incentives to invest in plant and equipment, research and development, technology to reduce energy costs, and processes to upskill workers
Businesses rates are a major barrier to growth and wholesale reform of the system is long overdue. They are in effect a tax on investment that deters businesses from investing in their premises.
Following Brexit, it is essential for the sake of continuity that existing EU regulations are enshrined in British law. But going forward there is an opportunity to simplify and better EU regulations.
Government must ensure that industry does not bear additional costs arising from Brexit, therefore avoiding any competitive headwinds.
Leaving the EU is also an opportunity to revisit state aid rules, which can inhibit government from supporting key sectors such as nuclear.
EDUCATION AND SKILLS
Cumbria’s working-age population is projected to fall from 298,351 in 2016 to 262,400 by 2037, creating a shortage of skilled workers.
There are particular skills shortages in STEM subjects and engineering, and expect the situation to worsen as major projects at BAE Systems in Barrow, and Moorside, Sellafield, come on stream.
It is vital that labour shortages in key sectors, from advanced manufacturing to tourism, are not exacerbated by tighter controls on immigration post Brexit.
There is a mismatch between the skills many young people possess and the skills that employers need.
We support the last Government’s plan for T-levels – the existing system of technical qualifications is confusing and lacks rigour.
But there is a need for more capacity in the further education system to cope with increased for vocational training increases.
Pupils must be offered meaningful work experience, and career guidance that is independent and impartial, and schools must equip pupils with the employability and life skills to equip them for the workplace.
Inadequate road, rail, mobile phone coverage and broadband links inhibit business potential in Cumbria.
Indeed, the county has been starved of infrastructure investment.
Although the last Government’s pledge to upgrade the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner is welcome, not enough has been achieved to prepare Cumbria’s roads and railways for the huge strain that will be imposed by the construction of a nuclear power station at Moorside, Sellafield.
Improvements to the A595, A69 and A590 are priorities for business.
The Government needs a new formula for evaluating infrastructure investment decisions, which factors in sustainability and opportunity rather than relying simply on a crude uplift in GVA.
The Connecting Cumbria broadband project lacks ambition. Its target connection speed of 2Mbps is woefully inadequate for business – 40Mbps is desirable. Likewise, parts of Cumbria lack decent 3G mobile phone connectivity, never mind 4G.
More should be spent on flood defences and resilience, to reduce the risk of repetition of the disastrous floods that hit Cumbria in 2005, 2009 and 2015.
More affordable housing is required to attract and retain skilled workers, and this may require reform of the planning system to support the delivery of new homes for social landlords.
The problem is particularly acute in South Lakeland and Eden, where average house prices are a multiple of 9.8 to 9.9 times average earnings. These are the highest ratios in the North West – the regional average is 6.9.
ACCESS TO FINANCE
Despite repeated attempts of governments to incentivise the banks to lend to SMEs, they still find it difficult to borrow without security.
The British Business Bank should act as a banker and lender to this sector, and be prepared to take a degree of entrepreneurial risk.
The Government should do more to promote equity funding and other alternatives to bank lending, and in this context initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund are welcome.
Brexit presents an opportunity to expand its remit to businesses in the energy and agricultural sectors, which are excluded by EU funding regulations.
PROCUREMENT AND SUPPLY CHAIN
Public-sector procurers should be instructed to favour local SMEs and supply chains as long as they are competitive, and make it easier for consortia of SMEs to bid for large public-sector contracts.
The Government should reform public procurement to make it more commercial and help to drive and shape sectors where it is the dominant customer, encouraging innovation and supply chain development.
All government contracts should be opportunities to innovate on a shared risk/shared reward basis, with suppliers allowed to retain IP rights, be given the freedom to develop applications for their innovation and be given assistance to bring them to market.
Brexit presents the opportunity to relax procurement rules for public sector contracts to drive UK priorities and prioritise UK suppliers.
TRADE AND EXPORTS
The Government should provide targeted relief or support for manufacturers to invest in gaining country-specific standards and accreditations.
It should expand the scope of its support scheme that underwrites export performance bonds.
It should also simplify visa access for overseas business people seeking to conduct trade with the UK, and reduce and reform Air Passenger Duty, which is in effect a tax on global trade.
Energy affordability is key to many businesses in Cumbria. The crucial thing is to have a robust and affordable energy supply.
The UK needs a 50-year energy security strategy, and nuclear power has a vital role to play in that as part of the energy mix.
Government must invest directly as a partner in new build to reduce the risk to private sector partners and reduce the end cost of the electricity generated.
Free from EU state aid rules post Brexit, it can use return on investment in a constructive way.
The last government’s model, of relying solely on the private sector to deliver nuclear new build, has not worked effectively.
The strike price for electricity generated by Hinkley Point C, at £92.50 per MWh, is too high and will add to costs for businesses.
Closer to home, there is a real threat to the Moorside nuclear new build project at Sellafield given the problems affecting its backer Toshiba. Moorside will generate more than 7% of our electricity and cannot be allowed to fail.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT, LEPs AND THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE
A new local government settlement for Cumbria should be a priority for the next government.
A devolution deal and a directly-elected mayor, alongside either unitary or combined authorities, would give the county a strong voice and control over vital areas of spending such as infrastructure and skills.
Local Enterprise Partnerships need a common governance structure and a greater private-sector presence on their boards.
There is also a need for a new regional body, covering the Northern Powerhouse area, operating above the LEPs to co-ordinate public funding streams and pitch the benefits of investing in the North to overseas investors. It should be politically independent, reporting directly to ministers.© Cumbria Chamber of Commerce