Britain has no agenda for growth, says Walsh

Airlines boss wants ministers to end visa restrictions and boost trade with new markets
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The Independent Online

Willie Walsh, chief executive of the owner of British Airways, has condemned the Government's economic recovery plans, warning: "I don't see an agenda for growth in this country."

Days after the Chancellor set out his Autumn Statement, Mr Walsh, head of International Airlines Group, which owns BA and Iberia, said Britain was stuck "in an old world" cut off from emerging markets thanks to government cuts, aviation policy and visa restrictions.

Speaking to The Independent on board BA's inaugural flight to Seoul, he said: "When I look at what I've done to restructure BA and other airlines, I've learnt you can't downsize a business to pursue growth – it hits long-term profitability. The thing to do is to address your cost base to make it more competitive, then pursue growth. But under this Government, I don't see that happening. I don't see an agenda for growth."

Mr Walsh said the UK's dithering over aviation policy meant the country is becoming cut off.

BA launched the Seoul route after buying bmi this summer, and switching its slots to connect Heathrow to long-haul, emerging markets. "BA secured the opportunity to grow at Heathrow by buying bmi," Mr Walsh added, "but airlines in other countries can't get into Heathrow, and the country is losing business as a result."

The aviation boss said that Heathrow being full was just one of a cocktail of measures putting off foreign firms and executives from doing business in the UK. "Measures like [air passenger duty] are making us less competitive, the visa regime in the UK just isn't friendly, and people in growth economies are discouraged from visiting the UK," he said.

Quoting figures showing that more than one million Schengen visas were issued last year for travel to Europe excluding the UK, but only 193,000 Chinese visited this country, Mr Walsh added: "These issues require some brave decisions from government, but I'm afraid this isn't a brave government.

"As a country, we're currently mid-table. If we're not careful we'll be out of the Premier league. And trying to get promotion again is very difficult and very expensive."

Despite the Chancellor announcing a £70m boost to the funding of UK Trade and Investment in the Autumn Statement last week to allow it to support more companies to export, Mr Walsh claimed Britain's trade priorities were wrong. "The world has changed and is changing and we need to adapt to stay in contention but we're stuck in an old world, aiming our business focus on Europe," he said.

"Until 2011, the UK exported more to Ireland than all the Bric countries combined. That's not right. Exports, tax, competitiveness and visa issues together mean we're falling down the rankings, and unless the Government takes action to reverse these, we will sink."