Business debrief with James Ramsbotham

March 31, 2020

Like many employers in the North East, James Ramsbotham, North East England Chamber of Commerce chief executive, was watching the Budget with an eagle eye and intended to write this column about it. He was particularly looking out for successes from his organisation’s hard work, ensuring Government understands what is needed to grow our regional economy. However, in the days since the Budget, the situation in the whole country has changed beyond recognition. Here, he sets out what is needed to ensure our businesses are able to cope with the many challenges that the coronavirus outbreak has created and also what the Chamber is doing to support them

The current challenge for our companies is to continue to trade in a manner that may well feel alien to them, with disrupted supply chains and an uncertain order book.

At the Chamber, we completely understand their concerns and welcome the substantial support that has been pledged by Government. The package of measures is huge but it needs to be on that scale, to ensure our businesses come out of this situation fighting fit for the rest of 2020 and beyond.

The promise of funding for furloughed employees is invaluable so employers can be ready for when the crisis abates and deferring the tax burden will be similarly important. What we now need to see is the funding coming through at top speed or it could be too late to be of real benefit to everyone’s cash flow.

We are working round the clock to support our business community with concise explanations of Government announcements and clear routes to its support as well as our own. As part of the Chamber’s backing, we have made £100,000 available for our members to have a refund on their membership fees for three months. The substantial take-up for this in a relatively short time shows how much this is being valued.

Through our membership of the British Chambers of Commerce, we have direct links to Government and are passing on all of the region’s business concerns to ensure they are understood at the highest level.

Our local MP, Rishi Sunak, has been thrown in at the deep end with his new role as Chancellor but when economic life returns to normal, we will still see the benefit of his original Budget, which had a clear business focus.

There were three principal Chamber campaign successes for us within the Chancellor’s Statement – much-needed investment in Darlington railway station, full reform of the Treasury Green Book (which calculates the return of investment in infrastructure, heavily weighted towards the South at present), and a review of business rates.

Our ambitious Fast Track East Coast campaign wants improvements right from London through to Edinburgh so companies have certainty in their services rather than delays due to overcrowding along the route. Investing in Darlington station is an important part of this work as it will allow better freight connections from Teesport, and prepare the station for high-speed services and Northern Powerhouse Rail.

With regard to travel there was also a good result for Nexus with investment for the Tyne and Wear Metro flow scheme to address the current issue of only having a single-track section on the South Shields line. It will upgrade an existing freight line in South Tyneside from September 2022. This will help to increase the frequency and reliability of the service allowing for an extra 30,000 passenger journeys every day.

The congestion on the A1 has long been a bugbear of many of businesses as well as the Chamber itself and I’m proud to have played a large part in getting the road widened on the Western Bypass. There is, however, still the significant chunk of this major artery route heading towards Scotland that remains gridlocked and single carriageway in part. We were delighted to hear the Chancellor’s pledge of investment for this important part of our region’s infrastructure.

Our reputation for industrial innovation goes back decades and we were pleased to see confirmation of the £800 million Carbon Capture Storage project. This is good news for Teesside although we do have a concern that the climate change taxes might impact on heavy industries in our region and will be asking for a long transition period to help them.

Other investment announcements included an increase in research and development funding to £22 billion a year, along with an acknowledgement that much of this funding has previously been focussed in London and the South East. Hopefully, a pledge to ‘support world-leading research in all regions and nations of the UK’ will mean an increase in funding for us in the North East.

There were, however, disappointments in the Statement. We would have liked to see more on education and skills. The Government pledged to look into improving the Apprenticeships and Levy system to support businesses of all sizes. However, it would have been desirable to see the Government offer businesses greater flexibility in how to spend and transfer their levy funds.

But overall this Budget and subsequent measures do support businesses substantially and there has never been more pertinent time for our strapline: Together, we grow stronger.

North East England Chamber of Commerce
The North East England Chamber of Commerce is the largest independent business organisation in the region and represents 3000 companies and organisations from global plcs to local SMEs. It supports businesses in a range of ways including networking, growing knowledge and campaigning on important, regional issues.

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