The big picture for business: Relocate’s perspective

The 2016 CBI Annual Conference delivered a programme whose speakers and experts reinforced Britain’s position at the forefront of global innovation. Relocate’s managing editor, Fiona Murchie, reports.

CBI the big picture for business

Source: CBI via Creative Commons

Attending the CBI Annual Conference, themed around innovation, growth and prosperity in a world of disruption, was a surprisingly reassuring experience.Behind the scenes, no doubt, there was a lot of politics going on, but my impression was of a purposeful audience of over 1,000 business leaders just wanting to get stuck in, deal with the challenges thrown up since the EU referendum vote on 23 June, and understand the potential impact of the US election result.Most business leaders are pragmatists. They understand that embracing digital solutions and technological advances can put them in the strongest position to ride the waves of change and withstand overseas competition. Standing still is not going to cut it. Announcing that Facebook planned to recruit 500 new staff to its UK headquarters, Nicola Mendelsohn, the multinational giant’s vice-president EMEA, advised firms to be agile. Matt Brittin, Google UK’s president of EMEA business operations, identified getting connected, strength in innovation (especially computing), and Britain’s great culture and creativity as three key trends to help UK business flourish despite the structural changes that would occur post-Brexit. The Brexit vote has certainly sent ripples through the tech sector. For the audience of business leaders across Britain’s large and medium-sized companies, here was a chance to learn about cutting-edge digital solutions and far-reaching technological advances that could put them in the strongest position to cope with disruption and embrace change. 

Attracting global investment

In her conference address, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, while acknowledging that the referendum vote would present UK businesses with challenges, insisted that Brexit would provide new opportunities for all.Mrs May outlined plans for Britain to be "the global go-to place for scientists, innovators and tech investors," adding, "The Chancellor will lay out an agenda that is not just ambitious for business but ambitious for Britain … He will make sure Britain outside the EU is the most attractive place for business to invest."

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To support this, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement included spending plans that should be been seen as positive by Relocate’s audience of organisations looking to grow and take advantage of global markets, including:
  • £1.1 billion extra for English local transport
  • £23 billion for a national productivity investment fund, aimed at science and technology development
  • A cut in corporation tax that will make the UK’s the lowest in the G20
Mrs May also spoke of forging "new and dynamic" trade agreements that would allow an "ambitious" Britain to trade across the world. Reassuring her business audience, she said, "We can strike a deal that’s right for Britain and right for the rest of Europe, too."The results of a new CBI survey of 800 businesses also sounded a positive note, with 70 per cent of respondents planning to increase or maintain their innovation spending following the vote to leave the EU.

The role of SMEs

Carolyn Fairbairn has been the CBI’s director-general for a year now, and has proved to be a competent and potentially transformational leader for this heavyweight industry body. Her engaging, listening style of leadership and her will to modernise while keeping her members on board seem to be in tune with the country’s mood to get on and make things work in the reality of Brexit.CBI members are not all large FTSE 100 organisations but include plenty of medium-sized business struggling to address the challenge of change against an ever-changing landscape and moving goalposts. The world is indeed changing, but medium-sized companies are very much a part of the UK’s future and success, and have employment and talent issues even if they are not exporters. They are to be found not just in London and other big cities but throughout the UK. In fast-changing times, professional associations need to represent all their members as best they can. That includes nurturing and engaging with the SMEs, which are potentially a big source of growth for the future.Said Carolyn Fairbairn, "The UK will need to work hard to become the front-runner in global innovation, creating a pioneering economic role for itself in the world that drives prosperity in every corner of the UK."Innovation is the nucleus of future economic and social development, so it’s encouraging that seven out of ten firms will keep up – or even raise – their spending on new technologies and work practices to grow their business."As we prepare to depart the EU, this shows that firms are rolling up their sleeves and looking to make the best of Brexit."Spending on innovation generates jobs and economic growth across the country, offering solutions to the challenges we face today and in the years ahead, from improving healthcare and mobile technology to a new generation of autonomous vehicles."Ms Fairbairn continued, "The Autumn Statement comes at a real crunch point to support our inventors, makers and designers, so the Chancellor must make the most of the tools at his disposal. The CBI wants to see a long-term commitment to target 3 per cent of GDP in R&D spending by 2025 and a doubling of Innovate UK’s budget."This needs to be underpinned by a new industrial strategy which builds on the UK’s sectoral and regional strengths." Even Jeremy Corbyn, speaking at the end of the conference, congratulated Carolyn Fairbairn on a job well done before tackling his main agenda.

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