GUEST BLOG: BCC director Adam Marshall on the future of the UK economy

While uncertainty remains a concern for the UK economy during the remainder of 2010 and the start of 2011, all of the numbers suggest one thing: that the UK is growing once again. Yes, that growth is slow - and yes, at times it is a bit bumpy.

But despite commentary from many pessimists, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) currently see no signs of a double-dip recession. The data just doesn't support it. So, unless a massive and systemic shock occurs somewhere around the globe, the UK's economic fundamentals suggest that we are indeed on the road to recovery.

The question now is how we build on that nascent recovery. As far as the BCC is concerned, it is up to us all - from policy-makers and politicians to FTSE-100 chief executives, to small business owners and managers in every region of the UK - to make 2011 a 'Year for Growth'.

For that to happen, however, we need a renewed sense of business confidence to take root. This, in turn, will help to create a 'virtuous circle', with confidence translating into investment, and investment translating into stronger companies, more new businesses, and ultimately, more employment.

What sorts of changes are required to unlock that confidence - the key to our Year for Growth?

Our conversations with SMEs and large companies up and down the UK suggest that four big issues repeatedly stop business growth in its tracks - and it is these that will get the BCC's maximum attention during the coming year.

First, there's Britain's sclerotic, unpredictable, costly and slow land-use planning system. At a time when politicians are exhorting the private sector to deliver every possible ounce of growth, it is ludicrous that a local retailer who wants to add floor-space, or a manufacturer who wants to build a new assembly line, are denied permission to do so.

To its great disadvantage, Britain is saddled with a local development control system that favours vested interests and the status quo - rather than the kind of growth that we all want to see. We will hold politicians to account, and demand that planning barriers are stripped back by the Government's Decentralisation and Localism Bill.

Second, a Year for Growth requires more systematic support for companies that want to do business abroad - including both new and existing exporters.

While the Prime Minister's hard work to promote UK exports to China and India is welcome, too many businesses tell us that their Continental and North American competitors are beating them to contracts in the fast-growing countries of the developing world - generally because UK companies can't get trade credit insurance on similar terms.

When trade finance is scarce and hard to come by, it's no wonder that British companies aren't able to take advantage of weaker sterling. We'll be working with the Government and with other businesses to support exporters better on everything from finance to missions abroad to promote the UK's wares.

Third, even with a slack labour market, companies that want to hire say that they are still having a hard time getting the people they need to do the job. To deliver a Year for Growth, we need to see job training that matches the needs of local employers, reduced regulatory burdens for those that take on new staff, and incentives for companies to bring people back from the unemployment rolls to the world of work.

It is possible to have economic growth without higher employment - but the BCC believes that with the right policies, Britain can have both.

And finally, no matter what changes we see on planning, exports, and training, growth will be hard to come by in 2011 unless businesses can find new ways to gain access to investment capital. A Year for Growth requires businesspeople, banks, equity investors and the Government to join up - and fundamentally reappraise how we go about financing growth at different stages of a business's lifecycle.

The BCC will be working closely with its strategic partners on this agenda - so that every member business that wants to expand can be matched up with a source of capital that enables it to succeed.

Delivering a Year for Growth is a big agenda. It won't happen overnight - simply because we, or the politicians in Westminster, hope that it comes to pass. Yet I remain fundamentally convinced that renewed business confidence - coupled with concerted action to knock down the barriers that stop SMEs getting ahead - is a winning formula for our future success.

Tune in to the "Economic outlook 2011 and beyond: The impact on UK businesses" webinar at 2:30pm on 8 December. Register for the Natwest/Smarta webinar here.

Dr Adam Marshall is Director of Policy and External Affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce (www.britishchambers.org.uk).

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