Norfolk small businesses face uncertainty

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 06.34.24

It was concerns about future employment prospects, together with an abhorrence of the growing xenophobia, that made me return to political activism in support of Remain. Subsequent researches on the impact of Brexit on local employment have drawn my attention to the gravity of the local problem.

Generally North Norfolk can be described as an area of low unemployment, with below average wages and productivity, and a higher than average number of smaller, or micro, businesses. I was therefore pleased to take up an invitation to attend a ‘Brexit: Opportunities & Challenges for Small Businesses’ organised by the East Anglia branch of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). The event, which was held in Norwich, took the form of a panel discussion; it was well-organised and well-attended.

It was also thoroughly depressing. Small businesses face an uncertain future and, half way through the negotiation process, we are no clearer on the shape of any trade deal.

There were some impressive performances by knowledgeable panelists at the FSB event. Professor Hussein Kassim of the University of East Anglia argued that large companies can take care of themselves but small business are vulnerable. The former are always able to ‘up sticks and go elsewhere’. The Norfolk Chair of the National Farmers Union, Tony Bambridge, tellingly stated that ‘at present I can put my potatoes on a lorry to Spain as easily as I can put them on a lorry to (nearby) Shipdham’. The FSB’s national Policy Director, Martin McTague pointed out that ‘negotiating trade deals is a minority sport’. For most small businesses the challenge was meeting the needs of the immediate customer base. Moreover his evidence suggested, that, given the current uncertainty, many of them were avoiding borrowing and putting any expansion plans on hold.  He also pointed out that 20% of small businesses currently employ EU labour.

Another panelist was the Norwich North Tory MP, Chloe Smith. After a shaky start to her Parliamentary career (she was famously mauled and accused of incompetence in a television interview by Jeremy Paxman) she is now an assured and polished performer. She has clearly positioned herself as a loyal and unquestioning supporter of Prime Minister Theresa May and set out to defend the indefensible. Her line was that the Government was ‘doing things in sequence’ and small business must continue to apply common sense when coping with uncertainty. She made a half-hearted attempt to suggest that the extended transition period agreed on 19th March represented some form of clarification and even went on to imply that a solution was in sight on the Irish border.

Although the meeting was polite in tone, and concentrated on preparation for, rather, than the politics of Brexit, Chloe Smith was given a rough time by some sections of the audience. There is little prospect of new international deals replacing any loss of existing EU customers and, for many of our local small businesses, this is a serious immediate concern. Given the tone I left feeling that we could win the political battle in a fresh referendum. Unfortunately, on the drive home, my car radio informed me that Jeremy Corbyn had just sacked Owen Smith from the Shadow Cabinet for suggesting just that.

 

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

Advertisements

An invitation to change colours

NNDC Council offices

On March 9th I launched a research paper on the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk. The full twelve page version can be downloaded from the link on the left of this page.   I had two objectives: one political and one economic. The first was, in a modest way, to help shift opinion in any fresh referendum. The latest poll I have seen shows 53% Remain and 42% Leave – some progress but not enough. The excellent David Cowling, the former editor of BBC political research, commented in his latest mailing that “The country seems just as divided as in 2016”. However you don’t have to change minds in a fresh referendum, just get more of us to vote than them.

My economic objective was to persuade all our local decision-makers and influencers here of the dire consequences for Norfolk of a hard Brexit, and of the need to anticipate these consequences and take action. I therefore sent the paper to the 51 District and County Councillors who represent areas within North Norfolk.

So far I have received six polite replies and two ‘out of offices’, though in fairness the paper is detailed and others may be taking time to digest it before returning. A particularly welcome response came from the District Councillor, a Liberal Democrat, who represents my home area of Glaven Valley. She wrote: “I will circulate it to my fellow members. Next month, we are due to review the Overview and Scrutiny work programme for the forthcoming year, so this is a timely input to that discussion”. This is exactly the response that I had hoped for; I wish her well and will give her every support.

Another polite and thoughtful response was entirely unexpected. We have a large group of Independents on the Council, all of whom have defected from the Conservatives following internal dissension. One of them, after making some considered comments on the paper, continued, “… if you are minded to secure the best deal that the District can hope for … help us fight for it. In May 2019 there will be elections for NNDC District Councillors, we as Independents feel that we can speak freely on any issues. Obviously I don’t know what your political persuasions are, but your knowledge would be a huge advantage to any group…” I must admit, even at my age, being somewhat flattered, but, after more than 50 years dogged loyalty to the Labour Party through thick and thin, I am unlikely to change my allegiance.  

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

A high-priced playground?

cromer pier

 

In 2009 I taught for a term at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. It was an interesting time to be in the country. The government was trying to decide the best response to the previous year’s global financial crisis in an economy that was clearly unbalanced.   Productivity was poor and the country’s manufacturing sector was finding it increasingly difficult to compete with Australia in the Pacific Rim. Conferences were held; papers written. One phrase struck me: the academic and author Paul Callaghan stated that New Zealand was in danger of becoming “a theme park with a farm”. *

Last week I launched a research paper on the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk. I distributed the paper it widely and one thoughtful response echoed Callaghan’s sentiment. It came from Martin Collison, of Collison and Associates a specialist consultancy who have been assisting with change management in areas like ours. He wrote:

Technology enabled change is likely to proceed much faster than most people understand, the smartphone which so many people now take for granted and which pervades every aspect of our lives, only really took off in 2007 with the launch of the i-phone.  The adoption of technology is a real challenge for those communities outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford, Cambridge, which benefits from higher data speeds and a concentration of technology businesses.

There is a danger that areas such as North Norfolk are too far away to benefit directly from the success of these technology hotspots and will end up falling back on being a high priced playground for those who do well in these other areas.

With a proactive economic response rural areas can grow in the future, but there are real constraints.  Too often their own communities fight to preserve a rural idyll and some visitors positively seek out rural areas with poor online connectivity to detox.  The cities, enabled by Metro Mayors, are also in many cases resurgent, proactive and lobby very hard to explain to government how they can deliver economic growth and as a result gobble up much of the available funding.  To compete, rural areas need dynamic leadership which is clear about how they too can embrace technology, deliver growth and benefit UK Plc.

This struck me as both insightful and correct and I am grateful to him for letting me reproduce it. We are going to face immense problems of change in North Norfolk; we are ill equipped to reap the benefits that arise from a knowledge-driven economy and it will be younger generations who will suffer. A hard Brexit will make things far worse. Moreover, as Martin Collison, indicates above many of the older generation are quite comfortable with the present situation and see no reason to change.

Just before the 2015 General and Local Elections I, attended out of curiosity, a ‘stand for councillor’ evening at the offices of North Norfolk District Council. At the time in my small village we had real problem on broadband speeds and were investigating an innovative solution involving Wi-Fi transmission from a local church tower. One of the councillors at the evening event, who did not represent our area, had aligned herself with objectors to this initiative. At the meeting she asked me: “It is not a village where many people work from home, so why do you need broadband?” Doubtless the landed gentry said similar things about electric light on the grounds that not many people in the village were able to read.  Not everyone will buy into the need for a proactive economic response.

 

* Callaghan, P. (2009). Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand’s Culture & Economy. Auckland University Press.

 

 

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s welcome

skynews-jeremy-corbyn-jeremy-corbyn-mp_4240775

It gives me a deal of pleasure to be able to resume my weekly blog on a positive note. At long last there has been some shift in the Labour leader’s position. Now we are in favour of continued customs union membership. To quote from his Coventry speech:

“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union… with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.”

No one should underestimate the extent of the shift and the opportunity that this provides for avoiding the Brexit catastrophe. Well done to all those who, over time, persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to shift his position.

I can’t include myself in that number, although at one time I knew him moderately well. I was a very active Labour Party member in Corbyn’s North Islington from the mid-70s to 1987 and did not hold him in high regard – I am sure that this feeling was reciprocated. In fact my Islington period covered the year when Corbyn was alleged to have consorted with a secret agent from the Czech republic. The idea that, at that time, anybody would have told him anything that mattered and that he would then have remembered it is absurd. However, in fairness, he has developed skills since becoming leader and is now pointing in the right direction.

The next challenge is to get him off the hook that the referendum vote must be treated as a considered and definitive decision that cannot be reversed – whatever the subsequent facts that have come to be light. In the course of a New European podcast published as recently as February 23rd , just three days before the Coventry speech, he was asked if Labour’s position on Brexit was shifting. He replied: “What we have said is that we accept the result of the referendum. We are leaving the European Union… We can’t be members of the single market because we won’t be members of the European Union”. *

The EU negotiators will not allow us to cherry-pick (or, as the Spanish apparently call it, sherry-pick) in this way. Signing up to everything that matters while pretending you are leaving may get the Labour Party through the next two years but it is not a strategy for Government.   Sooner or later political leaders must tell the electorate that they got it wrong. However let’s be thankful for some progress after a dreadful 2017.

*Listen on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396

 

If you would like to receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.