Chris Blackhurst: It's time we paid attention to Nev and his call centre, not the huge corporations

Midweek View: Small businesses account for half our national income and two-thirds of all employment

Chris Blackhurst
Wednesday 11 September 2013 01:29

There is a moment at the beginning of The Call Centre (BBC 3) that always makes me pause. It's when the announcer intones that this particular call centre is the "third biggest in Swansea". For those unfamiliar with the programme, it's a real-life version of The Office.

The David Brent character is played by Nev. His call centre specialises in cold-calling the people of south Wales, suggesting ways they can cut the costs of their energy bills –hence the title of Nev's emporium: Save Britain Money. It's knockabout fare, mainly thanks to the irrepressible Nev, pictured. But it's no joke: his organisation employs 700 people and the premises are large, modern and smart. And, of course, there are two other, similar places in Swansea that are even bigger.

The city, once famed for its humming docks, metal-processing plants and nearby mines, has become, apparently, one giant call centre. It is also the home of the DVLA, which provides work for 6,000 people. Call centres and public offices – the Swansea picture is repeated all over Britain.

Finally, the Government appears to be waking up to what has been occurring across the nation these past decades, as manufacturing industry has disappeared, to be replaced by people like Nev and civil servants forced out of London. In his keynote speech, hailing the recovery of the economy this week, George Osborne spelt out the danger in this approach: "Growth had been too concentrated in one corner of the country [London] while many other parts of Britain fell behind and became increasingly dependent on unsustainable levels of public spending."

But saying it is one thing, changing is quite another. What's required is a wholesale rethink of attitude. There are signs that the Government may be getting it. I was with a senior minister the other evening and was struck by how quickly he corrected me when we got on to the subject of London being a separate economy.

There were, he pointed out, pockets around the country that could also be thought of in the same terms of growth. He mentioned Nissan in Sunderland, Jaguar in the West Midlands (this was the night before Jaguar announced the creation of a further 1,700 new jobs, so he must have had some inkling of what was coming). Nevertheless, there was a subtle shift in emphasis. It was wrong, even old-fashioned, he opined, to single out London as the only magnet for future prosperity.

In the absence, in a world of increasingly fierce global competition, of large-scale foreign investors – and Jaguar appears to be an exception rather than the rule – the push must be on exports. Here, talking to the minister, there were signs of change.

I've never understood, I said, why our Prime Minister heads off on trade missions in the company of the bosses of our biggest enterprises. On his last, much-heralded export drive in India earlier this year, David Cameron was accompanied by executives from Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, BP and the Premier League – all of which have established Indian networks and have offices there. Why they must be with the Prime Minister is hard to fathom. As to what was hoped to be gained from taking the Premier League on the plane, apart from adding a bit of glitter, heaven knows.

Just as our obsession with all-things London must end, so too must our devotion to major corporations if we really hope to produce the desired rebalancing. The giant firms can take care of themselves – they don't require hand-holding by the Government or UK Trade and Investment (the official body charged with winning inward investment and increasing exports).

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with fewer than 250 employees account for half our national income and two-thirds of all employment. They generate 54 per cent of UK exports. Truly, they form the engine of our economy. Yet according to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), only 49 per cent of SMEs taking part in a recent survey had heard of UKTI. And, said the FSB, only one in five respondents had used its services.

These are shocking statistics. The Government is aware, said the minister, that more attention must be lavished on the SMEs. Old habits die hard, however. Where was the Chancellor when he made his call for a shift away from London this week? At the One Commercial Street development, on the edge of the City of London.

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