Giving the North East a voice

The Confederation of British Industry has identified long-term prosperity, productivity, devolution and EU membership as key areas of focus for 2016. Alison Cowie talks to North East regional director for the national business lobbying organisation, Sarah Glendinning, about what this means for the region’s business community

Sarah Glendinning joined the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in January 2015, becoming its permanent regional director for the North East in September.

She represents the region’s members of this vast organisation, comprising more than 190,000 businesses, which employ more than seven million employees across the UK.

The goal of the CBI is to give UK businesses a voice, which it uses to lobby policymakers, legislators and regulators on a regional, national and international scale.

Sarah is responsible for ensuring the voice of North East business is heard among the many voices the CBI represents.

It is a challenge that the vivacious and dedicated Sarah – who has worked for a diverse range of companies in the South East and North East throughout her career – is relishing.

“I genuinely love my job and feel it is a privilege to be able to represent the people of the North East,” she enthuses.

“What amazes me is how open North East businesses have been with me. They’ve shared their hopes and dreams, what their opportunities are and what challenges they are facing as a consequence of legislation. My job is to take this feedback and connect with CBI’s policy specialists to make sure that, when they are in front of civil servants or sitting on governmental boards and discussion groups, they are quoting North East businesses.”

CBI North East regularly invites CBI policy specialists to the region to listen to the experiences and challenges of its members via discussion groups, one-to-one sessions and networking events.

Recent visits from the CBI’s representative in Beijing, Guy Dru Drury resulted in a Chinese attaché spending time in the region last month, with the aim of developing greater business ties with the global powerhouse and the North East.

The team will also host the organisation’s tech policy specialist, Emma Collins this month, where she will meet with the region’s digital members, before returning to London to lobby Government for more favourable policies for the sector.

In addition, Sarah and her team are also tasked with driving the CBI’s national agenda at a regional level.

The principle focus of the CBI this year is its UK Prosperity Agenda. The organisation has identified five pillars for making a prosperous environment for businesses to flourish in the long term, and will be addressing policies that relate to each area.

“So with skills,” Sarah explains, “we’ll be looking at access to talent and the apprenticeship levy, and for trade, we will be looking at opportunities for exporting and the single EU market.

“We will also be ensuring there is the climate and capability for innovation, and we will work with organisations such as Transport for the North and Tech North to identify improvements in infrastructure, from road and rail to digital connectivity.”

Sarah’s appointment also comes at a pivotal time for business in terms of tax and regulation, with companies facing the national living wage increase, the apprenticeship levy, gender pay reporting, auto-enrolment and proposed business rate changes.

Sarah reflects: “Although the Government is pro-business, there does seem to be a cumulative burden happening with these legislations.

“We will work with our members in order to inform and educate them about the impact of these legislations, and ensure that we hold the Government to account in terms of making sure there are still opportunities for business growth.”

Other areas of focus – as set out by the CBI’s director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, at the beginning of this year, are increasing business productivity, assessing the impact of devolution and creating an informed debate around the membership of the EU – all themes that are pivotal to the North East, as Sarah explains: “If you look at statistics that are coming out of the North East labour market, employment is on the up and unemployment is falling. But there is still a pressure on wage growth and we need to improve productivity to address this.

“This doesn’t mean making people work harder; the CBI will instead be looking at how companies can work smarter, primarily with the use of technology.”

She continues: “Devolution is also something that is on the lips of most of our members in the North East. The general consensus is supportive but there is a fear from some about a fragmentation of UK PLC.

“We’re still in the very early stages of devolution but the important message we have got from speaking to the devolved nations [Scotland and Wales] is that it is important to take baby steps to ensure stability and predictability.

“In terms of the EU membership,” Sarah continues, “the overriding message from our members is they want the UK to remain with the EU, but with reform – and we echo that as an organisation.

“With the North East consistently being a net exporter, EU markets are important to us and we are following the Government’s current negotiations with the EU very closely.”

Sarah admits that 2016 will be a “very busy and varied year” for her, but she has been overwhelmed by the level of support she has received since her appointment last autumn.

“The North East business community has been very welcoming and my priority is to continue to make sure their voice is heard during this critical year.

“I can only do this by going out, talking to and listening to our members, who span everything from a one-woman training organisation up to Nissan.

“When I’m working for the CBI, I’m not representing what Sarah Glendinning thinks; it’s what our members think.”

CBI North East is based at Shakespeare House, 18 Shakespeare Street, Newcastle, NE1 6AQ

www.cbi.org.uk/northeast

ne.mail@cbi.org.uk

0191 255 4410

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