Dear George Osborne, please listen to British business
As the Chancellor prepares for Wednesday, we asked industry leaders for their Budget wishlist
Mark Leftly is Associate business editor for The Independent
A C Grayling
A. C. Grayling is an English philosopher and founder of independent undergraduate college, New College of the Humanities. He is the author of several books including The Refutation of Scepticism (1985), The Meaning of Things (2001) and The Good Book (2011).
Sunday 17 March 2013
Nearly three years on from the formation of the coalition there are, surely, no excuses. Chancellor George Osborne's Budget on Wednesday cannot just blame the mistakes of the later Labour years for the country's economic mess and by now he should no longer be burdened by the economic structures that Gordon Brown and his team conceived.
Over halfway through this term – the next election is set for May 2015 – Osborne can truly make his own mark on the economy with some radical thinking. This could mean privatisations, such as the heavily rumoured sale of the Highways Agency that has been trumpeted in some internal Treasury documents, or just how the Chancellor plans to entice the small "c" conservatives managing pension funds to risk money on his £200bn infrastructure plan.
To give Mr Osborne a helping hand, The IoS has spoken to a cross-section of British business leaders, from budding entrepreneurs to the bosses of multinationals, from a killer of pests to a lesser-known dragon. Maybe, just maybe, Mr Osborne still has time to stuff a few of these ideas into his red box over the coming days.
Here's British business's eight point manifesto:
1 Reduce red tape
OK, let's start with one of the big boys: BSkyB boss Jeremy Darroch. This won't shock anyone who has followed a company that has been bedevilled by Ofcom over everything from Premier League TV rights to selling up to News International, but Darroch wants Mr Osborne to tell regulators to keep their noses out of all but the most significant issues.
"We just want an environment where the pressures on business, whether that is regulation or red tape, are reduced and removed and incentives for investment are encouraged," says the man who brings us live international cricket and repeats of The Simpsons. "A lot of businesses spend frankly too much time down at the regulator's office and a little bit less time focused on the market place."
2 Stop changing the rules
Big businesses don't think in 12-month cycles. They plan for years to ensure they are ready to take on competition and handle any economic shocks, like the global downturn. For example, Rexam didn't establish its dominance in producing Coca-Cola and Baltika beer cans without having a consistent strategy.
"Business can cope with most things that are thrown at it, provided they have certainty of what it is going to be," says Rexam chief executive Graham Chipchase. "We don't plan for a 12-month period we plan over a longer period than that. I'd like to see a clear view over the longer term about how we are going to create an environment for growth and for business to flourish."
3 It's the civil service, stupid!
Business has never shied away from criticising the public sector for using so many resources for such poor results – and at a time when austerity should be forcing government to be leaner and meaner than ever, corparates aren't going to stop now.
Take Alan Brown, the boss at ratcatcher Rentokil Initial, who wants Osborne to announce "a determined effort to further improve the efficiency of the public sector – we need to reduce the tax burden on the nation".
4 Stop dithering
All the talk about infrastructure kickstarting the UK economy has so far been largely just that – chat. URS executive chairman Tom Bishop has helped to run Sellafield for five years, but he is hungry for more work – Osborne's just got to say when and where.
"Our roads, railways, bridges and buildings provide the veins and arteries of commerce," says Bishop. "The green light needs to be given to a number of significant infrastructure projects so that construction contractors can mobilise within weeks or months. Had decisions been taken more quickly in the past, many infrastructure improvements could well have been ready today."
5 Think about the children
According to the OECD, the UK has the worst levels of youth unemployment in the developed world, bar Greece and Spain – and look what's happened to them.
Unsurprisingly, the boss of recruitment giant Manpower UK is concerned. "If you could make it easier for particularly SMEs to take on apprentices that would be a great help because a lot struggle with the red tape," argues Mark Cahill. "Larger organisations have the resources to access funding and take on apprentices."
6 National Insurance shouldn't be universal
Talking of SMEs, one particularly eye-catching idea to help them out comes from Julie Meyer, a judge on the online version of the BBC's Dragons' Den and founder of Ariadne Capital, which backs entrepreneurs.
"I don't think National Insurance contributions, essentially a tax on creating jobs, is appropriate. Let's keep NI away from those companies that earn less than £1m a year in profit – the big corporates can do the heavy lifting on that."
7 Put SMEs at policy's heart
Politicians always blather on about how SMEs are the backbone of British business, but this rarely seems to result in those companies being listened to. Well, George, hear this:
"I would like to see the Chancellor introduce measures aimed at stimulating the growth of start-up businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship," says Ed Boyes, who founded Hello Fresh, which delivers ingredients and recipes for pad thai and penne rigate to people's homes. "For example, reduced rent schemes and tax relief for businesses with a turnover under a certain threshold. Reducing VAT to 15 per cent again could also help to revive confidence."
8 And finally …
Stop focusing on presentation. As Damian Routley, boss of Facebook-focused Glow says: "Tax credits for research and development, greater access to capital – anything that will help start-ups more tangibly than Cameron going on TV and talking about Tech City."
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