Bath firms should ‘control the controllables’ and not fret over Brexit, advises business group
Business-owners in Bath should focus on their immediate business concerns and the challenges posed by the city’s infrastructure rather than hard-to-influence Brexit-related issues, a local business group has said.
Ian Bell, executive director for the Bath Chamber of Commerce & Initiative, made the call when speaking as part of a four-strong panel at the third annual Bath Economic Question Time event held by Royds Withy King, Bishop Fleming and HSBC at Bath Racecourse last week.
Mr Bell said Bath posed huge challenges to businesses looking for suitable commercial space, as well as the ongoing challenge arising from the city’s transport infrastructure and its lack of car parking.
“Right now, solving these issues matters more to Bath’s economic prospects and its businesses compared with the mysteries of Brexit. So business owners should focus on controlling the controllables,” he said.
Stadium for Bath
Despite Bath’s well-known infrastructure challenges, there are many positive developments on the horizon, including the exciting Stadium for Bath project. Fellow panellist Mike Bohndiek, who is chief technical officer for the Stadium for Bath project, spoke about the emerging design consultation that will get underway for the stadium from mid-July, and about the aspiration to have the stadium ready for the 2021/22 season.
“A sports stadium today needs to create a destination that delivers for the community as a year-round facility,” he noted. “It’s not just about a rugby stadium but about creating a facility for young people, community groups and businesses – something, in other words, with lasting social and economic benefits for as many as possible. That’s what we are driving towards with Stadium for Bath.”
The other Economic Question Time panellists were Mark Berrisford-Smith, head of economics for UK commercial banking at HSBC, and Stephen Wicks, joint owner and director at Silcox Son & Wicks, a luxury home furniture business based in central Bath.
“It’s not just about a rugby stadium but about creating a facility for young people, community groups and businesses – something, in other words, with lasting social and economic benefits”
Optimism despite uncertainty
Mr Berrisford-Smith painted a picture of slower growth than expected for the UK against Brexit’s uncertainties, but still struck a cautiously optimistic note.
“We have just had the two best years for the global economy since before the financial crisis struck in 2008. Every major economy bar one has seen its speed of growth increase.”
While acknowledging the “mysterious absence of inflation and too much debt” in the global economic picture, Mr Berrisford-Smith also noted that the debt has mostly shifted from previous hotspots like the US housing market and the UK financial system to an increasingly indebted China.
“Credit is getting tighter again now. Most economies have been growing faster but there’s a slowdown coming through now. That means 2018 won’t be as good as 2017 and central banks are starting to think about raising interest rates.”
The economist said there was not much way of knowing when the next downturn would hit, and he flagged the short-term uncertainties arising from Brexit but still described the long-term impact of the UK leaving the EU as small.
“Yes, Brexit is confusing right now. The UK needs to get a move on as its position is hard to understand because it just hasn’t been articulated.”
Access to the best talent a major concern
Mr Berrisford-Smith added that for many companies the most profound issue would be accessing European talent, which would likely get “quite a lot harder.”
Stephen Wicks of Silcox Son & Wicks noted that Bath has always attracted EU workers and if they couldn’t come so easily – or at all – that would put pressure on businesses. “The net effect will be wage and price increases, especially in retail, which is probably not an impact that people voted for, but that’s what we’ll get,” he said.
Mr Berrisford-Smith noted that migration flows into and out of the UK were already changing, with Polish nationals now more likely to return to Poland, where the economy is strengthening, but more recent EU entrants, like Bulgaria and Romania, are likely to continue coming to the UK because of the still-sizeable economic advantage and opportunity for individuals. He also said Brexit is likely to drive many UK businesses to approach staffing challenges in other ways, like investing in efficiency, processes and machinery – even Artificial Intelligence – rather than tapping into labour markets.”
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