Industrial leaders call for action on economy

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S beleaguered industrialists called yesterday for the Government to back its words with action and cash to pull the country out of recession. They also warned against the dangers of short-term measures not underpinned by a long-term manufacturing and industrial plan for the UK.

Sir Michael Bishop, chairman of airline British Midland, said: 'The policies of the 1980s served us well and . . . I am not sure we need a very dramatic change to get us back on track.' He cautioned against action which would lead Britain back into 'the roller coaster of stop-go'.

Leaders of the building industry, among the worst hit by the recession, welcomed John Major's comments that he was going for a 'strategy of growth', as a sign that the Government has started worrying about the damage being done. But they warned that the words needed to be supported by evidence that it was committed to supporting industry.

Neville Simms, chief executive of Tarmac - Britain's largest housebuilder and one of the main suppliers of materials for roads and construction projects - said: 'The construction industry, unlike the miners, has had very little sympathy. But we have lost 400,000 jobs since the recession began.'

He said he hoped the strategy for growth would mean the Government's ambitious road-building programme would not be cut as part of the imminent squeeze on public spending. He warned that any reductions would cost more jobs and added: 'When you think of the state of our infrastructure and the national waste because we don't spend enough to ensure that companies can get their goods to the market quickly enough, to cut the programme before it has seriously got off the ground would be appalling.'

Joe Dwyer, chief executive of construction group Wimpey, questioned whether Mr Major's plan to change the rules which discourage private companies from carrying out large public sector projects - such as toll roads - would make much difference. He said Britain's infrastructure was so well-developed there were few projects which would be suitable. 'It is just fiddling at the edges.'

Lord Stirling, chairman of the shipping and property company P & O and a long-standing supporter of the Government, said the new policy would have to be investment-led. 'What people want to see is that companies and the Government are creating an in-depth recovery and it is not just people whizzing out to buy televisions and videos.

'Overseas, without question, they want to see it investment-led. If so, they will be less concerned about the size of the public sector borrowing requirement.'

Keith Wey, economist for the Chemical Industries Association, said the Government was giving a 'manic impression'. He said: 'The problem is that we have had no strategy so we get these short- term changes. It is amazing that we hear nothing but control inflation and then suddenly it's go for growth.'

He said the association was in favour of lower interest rates as long as the Government kept an eye on inflation, but added: 'We need a balanced handling of economic policies, not violent switches.' The association warned against a rush towards growth that pulled in imports and increased the balance of payments deficit.

The Building Employers Confederation gave a guarded welcome to the drive for growth but said that Mr Major's initiative must be backed by something other than words. Joanne Cutler, the BEC's economist also warned that the Government could not rely on the private sector to lead the way out of recession.

'At the moment people have not got a lot of money and we are not in a climate where firms want to take risks,' she said. 'We have already seen that lower interest rates are not enough to kick-start the economy, we need a fiscal injection of some sort as well.'

Only the Institute of Directors gave an unqualified welcome for Mr Major's move. The IoD said: 'The Prime Minister's new strategy for economic growth and employment . . . gives fresh hope for recovery.'

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