Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to have you join us here today at the QE II Centre.
Thank you, Sarah, for opening our conference and acknowledging the hard work of the Chamber Network over the past year.
As you said, it’s been a busy one. And the video really captures the breadth and depth of our collective work across the regions, nations, and internationally.
I would like to extend a warm welcome to our headline partner NatWest. As well as our supporting partners, Heathrow and Drax. All of whom share our commitment to the business community.
A community we have been proud to serve over 160 years.
We at the British Chambers of Commerce are focussed on making the UK the best place to start and grow a business – building networks, supporting companies and giving them a local and national voice.
Because we believe that business belongs at the heart of our national economy and the decisions that can energise our future. Its passion drives growth.
Its potential drives productivity. Its profits drive prosperity. And when business unites we can harness its power, passion and potential for a national voice to build our economy and communities.
Let me take you back to 1860, to when the British Chamber of Commerce was founded.
When a group of business leaders from 16 Chambers came together and recognised that while their individual companies were successful, they could achieve far more collectively.
They realised that they needed a strong voice to improve the conditions for the business community. This historic event marked the beginning of a new era in British business.
One where entrepreneurs, business leaders and government would work together to drive growth and prosperity.
Fast forward to today, and the British Chambers of Commerce have grown into a powerful and diverse voice for business, and the UK.
Our voice is needed now more than ever. With a general election less than 18 months away, we are at a pivotal moment for the voice of British business.
In the last year alone, we have seen eye-watering energy bills, inflation stubbornly remaining over 10%, rising interest rates and a cripplingly tight labour market.
On top of this, businesses have had to adapt to the complexities of trading in a post-Brexit Britain.
I am under no illusion about just how challenging these times are for anyone in business. They tell me everyday.
But let me be upfront and frank, business needs a fresh relationship with Government.
This is why, today, we are launching a national campaign – Where Business Belongs – to invite businesses that need a voice to join their Chamber.
A campaign that will see business and government working together in real partnership to fix our economic challenges and build an economy that works for all: one that is fit for the future.
Let me tell you how we do this now. One of our most powerful tools is our Quarterly Economic Survey. It contains the views of thousands of firms.
Giving us invaluable insights into businesses of all sizes and sectors across the country, and the issues they face today.
So that when we speak on behalf of our members to influence government policy, we are doing it in a way that truly reflects the needs of the business community.
Last year, we faced significant political instability and a real lack of solutions to the challenges faced by business.
We worked hard with our members to come up with a plan: the British Chambers of Commerce Business Manifesto.
It set out what government needed to do to support business. We presented the manifesto to Government and worked with them to implement it.
Since then, these recommendations have helped set the national agenda. The introduction of vital energy support to get businesses through the winter;
Increased investment in childcare to bring parents back into the labour market;
The reversal of the National Insurance Contribution increase.
And, working with our Northern Ireland Chamber, we played a role in delivering the Windsor Framework.
Policies that deliver for business. We have the ability to work with Government, and opposition, to shape vital national policy on the big economic issues impacting businesses. That’s our job.
As Director General, the best part of what I do is travelling the country, meeting the Chambers and their members. And they are inspirational.
Last easter, I saw the power of the Chambers in action when I visited the Inverness Chamber and met the Cromarty Firth team. The Chamber was working hand-in-hand with local organisations to bid for the first Green freeport in Scotland.
The team won the bid, and the Greenport infrastructure will now deliver a pipeline of renewable energy projects Creating more than 15,000 jobs in the Highlands, with a further 10,000 jobs across the UK.
Earlier this year, I travelled to The University of Reading to see the fantastic work of the Thames Valley Chamber driving inward investment into the UK creative industries.
The Chamber worked in partnership with the Department for Business and Trade to support the University of Reading to develop a major film studio and creative media campus, Shinfield Studios.
This will be a state-of-the-art facility, that will not only attract major Hollywood productions to the UK, but create 3,000 new jobs, and deliver over half a billion pounds to the economy every year.
And last month I visited a business called Paragraf, at our Cambridgeshire Chamber. This is a business that has developed a microchip made of graphene.It is 10,000 times more conductive and uses one tenth of the energy of a normal chip.
World leading IP, developed by a company that has chosen to grow and invest right here in the UK, despite many offers to move abroad.
These are just a handful of examples, I could share thousands more.
Every day we see inspiring examples of firms defying the odds, using their can-do, solution-orientated attitudes to push for prosperity even when they are up against it.
Power of the collective
I want to take you back to Newcastle Upon Tyne, 200 years ago. At that time, the boats used to come down the River Tyne into the city to be unloaded by merchants.
As the boats got bigger, they couldn’t get all the way down the river so the merchants had to travel out of town to unload their boats which was, of course, costly and inefficient.
Now, the reason they couldn’t get their boats down the river was because there was a small rocky island in the centre.
So, the merchants of Newcastle clubbed together, and they put their money in a pot. And what did they buy with their money? They bought dynamite.
And they blew up the small, rocky island so the boats could come all the way down the Tyne and into the city. They saw a problem; they came together, and they fixed it.
That’s the power of the collective in action.
We are for everyone
And today, we all need to work together to make the UK the best place to start and grow a business.
And we want to scale and grow our community, whether you are an entrepreneur with a great idea who doesn’t know how to get it off the ground or an international firm looking to invest in the UK.
The Chamber of Commerce will help you find the answer, wherever you are.
As a member of the British Chambers of Commerce, we are part of your community, and you are part of ours.
This means there is always someone to call and someone will always be there with expertise to tackle the problem.
Our diverse membership means we can tap into the minds and experiences of a huge range of members, from tech start-ups to global multinationals.
We are for every business. A steady hand with credibility on the big challenges. And the convening power to bring business together to find solutions.
And so, today, we are calling on businesses of all sizes, across all sectors, to work with us to tackle five of the biggest challenges, and opportunities, the country is facing right now:
- The Digital revolution
- People and work
- Green innovation
- Global Britain; and
- Future of the high street.
Let me start with the Digital Revolution.
Look at the changes being delivered by generative AI. What previously took years is now only taking days – or even minutes! We need to be ready for this pace of exponential change.
At the Chambers, we’re led by one of Britain’s true digital pioneers. Our President, Martha Lane Fox has been at the heart of digital innovation, both as an entrepreneur and policy shaper.
As we move forward into an increasingly digital age, it’s vital that we answer the crucial questions that firms are asking.
How can we use AI to revolutionise the way we operate?
What policies could help us embrace its benefits?
And how can we safeguard against negative consequences and ensure no one is left behind.
That’s why we urgently need to work in partnership with Government to identify the solutions and redesign our future.
The second challenge is people and work.
We have over one million vacancies across our economy, 80% of businesses looking to hire staff are facing real challenges.
How are we expected to grow the economy without a real plan to fill these jobs?
We can achieve this through long-term investment in Local Skills Improvement Plans, already led by the Chamber Network. By taking a pragmatic approach to immigration policy, that ensures the Shortage Occupations List reflects the reality on the ground; and supporting people to get back to work.
Third on our agenda is green innovation.
As Chair of the Advisory Group on Business for the Climate Change Committee delivering Net Zero is a goal close to my heart.
The UK was the first major economy in the world to legislate for a binding target to reach net zero emissions by 2050. And businesses must play a leading role in tackling that shared environmental ambition.
The UK is ahead of the curve in green innovation, but with the lack of direction from government, we are seeing the US and the EU moving fast, and becoming a more attractive places for our businesses.
This is a huge economic opportunity for UK Plc. New global markets for low carbon products and services will be worth an estimated £1trn to the UK by 2030. Let’s not turn our back on that.
The fourth challenge centres on Britain’s place in the global economy.
Post-Brexit, the UK is figuring out its economic role in the world. Both exports and inward investment are facing growing competition.
But it’s a problem we are well placed to solve. Only 10% of UK businesses export. 60% of Chamber members do.
That is because we know how to find opportunities and partners all over the world and give businesses the tools to break into new markets.
We are also working to ensure that the UK continues to be a great place to invest.
So that when global boards are deciding where to put their money, they see in the UK the conditions, talent, and access to finance that make it one of the best places in the world to start or grow a business.
And finally, the fifth challenge we are taking on is the future of the high street.
A bellwether of British towns and cities, the high street is in a constant state of flux.
The continuing rise of online shopping, altered working patterns and the cost-of-living crisis have hit our places hard, leaving many shops derelict and creating ghost towns in our communities. We need to bring them back to life.
Planning, business rates and devolution, may not be a conversation starter at a dinner party, but they are by far the most important conversations for our Chambers.
If we want to revive our towns and cities, we – the business community – need to be a leader in this process of change, not a follower, and shape the future of Britain’s communities.
I began by talking about passion and growth, potential and productivity, products and prosperity.
All vital ingredients. And while the UK’s present may look uncertain, those who doubt us should remember that it’s never a good bet to bet against Britain.
Because the history of British business is a great story It’s the strength of local connections, national influence and global reach.
And the everyday stories that deliver extraordinary results.
At the British Chambers of Commerce, we exist to give this narrative a voice. Because we believe in business.
Bringing companies together to unite profit and purpose, driving prosperity through the power of the collective and creating an economy that works for everyone.
At the British Chambers of Commerce, we are where business belongs.