VOICE OF INDUSTRY HEARD AT BUSINESS FESTIVAL
Demands for better infrastructure, closer ties between trade policies and the Industrial Strategy, and a swipe at US President Donald Trump were all features of the first major speech at the 2018 International Business Festival.
Confederation of British Industry director-general Carolyn Fairbairn addressed a large crowd on an opening day themed around Global Economics. And she told delegates from the UK business community they “must believe in the power of our ‘Built in Britain’ brand; it’s so strong”.
“We must get better at playing to our strengths,” she said. “Seeing the UK through the eyes of colleagues around the world. We are seen as having the best universities in the world, brilliant creative industries, an unmatched rule of law and innovation in our bloodstream.”
Having been introduced by day host, the BBC business presenter Tanya Beckett, Ms Fairbairn did not take long to criticise Trump’s protectionist stance on trade and tariffs.
“What he is doing in the world of global trade is misguided and I would even call it dangerous. It threatens prosperity here and around the world and a trade war will benefit absolutely no-one.”
Britain too must remain open to the world if it was to sell to the world, she said, saying one of her top priorities was the continuation of frictionless trade with Europe post-Brexit.
And while she praised the goals of the government’s Industrial Strategy, she said it was important that it was more closely tied to its stance on global trade.
"They can currently seem to exist in two parallel government universes while in practice they must be two sides of the same coin," she argued. “What is missing is how they can join up, how great trade can support inclusive growth.”
Ms Fairbairn said she’d arrived in Liverpool after a smooth rail journey from London. But she referred to recent problems of cancellations plaguing northern commuters.
“Disruption in rail services across the country, and particularly in the North, has harmed jobs, businesses and ordinary lives. If the UK is to be a competitive nation this is just not good enough.
“We must invest in world class transport and we must do it urgently.”
She pointed to a decision two years ago to open one direct route from Manchester Airport to China as an example of how infrastructure improvements could boost trade.
“The number of people travelling between Manchester and China grew 40%, spending by Chinese tourists in Manchester had doubled and local exports to China had increased to £200m a year.”
And she said the UK must "hold its nerve" over constructing another runway at London's Heathrow airport, saying it would benefit businesses and communities across the country, not just in southeast England.
Addressing audience questions, Ms Fairbairn said levels of concern among the CBI’s membership had risen considerably over a Brexit timetable that feels “very short”.
“The message we have is to speak out,” she said. “You don’t have to take a political stance but be very clear about the impact of friction at borders, delays at borders, on business.”
While the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without any deal had in her view receded, she said: “The biggest risk is that we have no clarity for a significantly longer period.
“In the meantime, we can make a difference to what we can control. And the prize is a more competitive UK that is once again a great trading nation.
“The winners will be ordinary people and communities across our country.”