By Dr Liz Cameron OBE, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce
Within weeks of the first cases of COVID-19 being detected in Scotland, thousands of businesses were forced to shut down virtually overnight, as the economy was plunged into the first lockdown on the 23rd March last year.
From day one of restrictions being introduced the Scottish Chambers of Commerce Network stepped up to the challenge, and ever since, has worked day and night to be the strongest representatives of Scottish businesses at a time when the need to amplify our voices has never been greater.
Over the past 15 months SCC have provided tens of thousands of businesses with daily practical support and the information many have needed to access lifeline funding and resources. We have met with Scottish and U.K. Government Ministers to influence policy and to urge greater support for our businesses where necessary, in particular, for those most affected sectors and those businesses unable to operate at all under many levels of restrictions.
Throughout the pandemic, the relationship between business and government has also been tested like never before. We have welcomed support where we believe government has got policy decisions right and we have also not been afraid to criticise when we believe they have reached the wrong outcome or failed to provide the clarity and certainty businesses need.
If Scotland is to now tackle the big challenges ahead as our economy begins to reopen and we move down the levels system and beyond restrictions, it is essential that commerce and government align in this most critical moment for our economy.
It is vital that policymakers and business leaders are talking the same language and recognising the need to balance long-term strategies for growth alongside concrete action in the here and now, to ensure we retain as many businesses and jobs as possible, enabling our economy to rebuild and grow again.
Even now, with the prospect of all restrictions being lifted for the first time since the start of the pandemic finally within sight, Scotland and its businesses still face three immediate threats.
First, is the health pandemic. The success of the vaccine rollout is the silver bullet that provides a us with a path back to economic growth and Scotland’s business communities will do all they can to support the NHS, the wellbeing of employees, customers and communities across Scotland to bring forward the restart, re-opening and re-building of our economy.
Secondly, facing up to the lasting consequences of putting the brakes on the economy during these arduous months of lockdown, with the potential long-term consequences on consumer confidence and businesses finances.
Finally, and crucially, ensuring that we use this moment, right now, to reset the relationship between business and government.
To this end SCC published our flagship, business-led “Rally for Growth” action plan, ahead of May’s Holyrood elections with the specific aim of calling for this relationship reset between businesses and politicians and highlighting the need to develop a new, closer, more effective relationship with our parliamentarians and government.
The pandemic brought into sharp relief the gulf that existed between business and policy makers and the need to improve that relationship. By fostering a better understanding and recognition of the value and importance of business in the policy making process, we can ensure that as we go forward there is better synergy in place between government and businesses to support both our and their economic ambitions.
Our report offers up a blueprint to Scotland’s decision makers on how they can support that ambitious economic recovery in the wake of the damage caused by the coronavirus, impacts of leaving the European Union, and a legacy of sluggish growth in Scotland.
It offers a bold set of policies and actions that we believe can restore and renew Scotland’s economy with added vigour, to champion all sectors, and to position Scottish businesses, rightly, as global players.
Scotland cannot afford to sit on the side-lines, and we need to forge a better and bolder new direction for business now with an economy with people at its centre, is collaborative, digital, low carbon, that celebrates unique Scottish localism, while at the same time attracting diverse global businesses, investors and talent.
To achieve this, we want the re-elected Scottish Government to Pass a ‘Business Growth Act’ to address some of the most urgent issues facing businesses right now, including reducing upfront business costs; boosting international trade; upskilling, and reskilling the workforce; major digital and infrastructure investment; business mobilisation on COP26, faster action and increased investment around renewable energies; redesigning our cities.
The Advisory Group on Economic Recovery recommended that “Scottish Government and the business community should take urgent action to develop a new collaborative partnership on the strategy for Scotland’s economic recovery”. We successfully argued that now is the time to begin that relationship reset between business and government and our calls for a Joint Economic Partnership to be established have been incorporated into Scottish Government plans to create a Council for Economic Transformation. This follows our recommendation to bring together the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisors and the Heads of the Scottish Business Representative Groups in an effort to boost economic output, and time alone will tell if this new group lives up to it’s potential.
In addition, the Scottish Government should redouble its efforts to support the economy by adopting a firmly pro-growth and pro-enterprise stance to attract investment and drive job creation.
Not all of Scotland’s economic stagnation can be attributed to the pandemic, as the relentless Brexit uncertainty has also negatively impacted on investment and immediate action is needed to stimulate the economy and reverse negative investment trends.
Business and government must therefore work together to send a clear signal that Scotland is open for business and remains a great place to invest. The Scottish Government could support this by slashing upfront business costs and reviewing their long-term approach to taxation and supporting a model which incentivises investment and job creation, moving beyond punitive short-range revenue raising measures which continue to hurt business.
Scotland’s workforce and skills will also be central to success. Our people are at the heart of our businesses, and we need access to the best talent to drive business growth and a clear plan to upskill and reskill our workforce at all levels.
Productivity growth is the sustainable way to secure active growth in quality jobs and increase our output, an area where successive governments have struggled to make any meaningful improvements. Our view is that the single most important contributing factor is education, training and upskilling at all levels.
By expanding retraining opportunities to help people back into work and expanding upskilling opportunities to help those out of work secure jobs that are being created in emerging and growing sectors now and in the future, we could realise a step change in Scotland’s employment outlook and economic development.
All of this of course is underpinned by Scotland’s infrastructure and by fast-tracking infrastructure investment the Scottish and U.K. Governments can better support our immediate and long-term economic recovery. Our action plan set out several key areas that require focused investment with committed timelines.
Infrastructure connects people to jobs, businesses and trading opportunities locally, nationally and globally. Ensuring that every part of Scotland is well connected both physically and digitally will drive a fairer recovery, ensuring no business is left behind. That is why rapid investment in new transport technologies, digital connectivity, energy transition to net-zero, rail expansion and more will play a critical role in supporting Scotland’s net-zero targets.
Alongside this, there should be a new Scottish Aviation Strategy to kick-start growth and restore Scotland’s airports, which are critical to attracting international investors and tourists as well as facilitating trade.
Before the election, we put our action-led policies to Scotland’s perspective politicians to share our vision of recovery, economic growth but also our frustrations, organising a series of on-line National Party Leader Events with all the main Scottish parties represented to facilitate discussion about the challenges facing our economy and what Scotland’s business community needs to not only survive, but thrive, post-pandemic.
This series of SCC Network events were well attended and highlights included the opportunity for Network members to put questions directly to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on a range of issues such as what next Scottish Government would do to support growth, how crucial services and election promises would be funded, and how government can help Scotland improve economic performance.
Now we are through the election period, SCC has once again been meeting with Scottish Government Ministers and other key decision makers to pursue our Rally for Growth policies on behalf of our members and to make good on the commitments given to the business community during the campaign from all political parties.
As our economy now gradually reopens and restrictions ease over the coming days, weeks and months, it’s crucial that governments carefully think through how they support a long-term sustainable recovery. Continued financial support will be needed to ensure that all the pain of the pandemic that businesses had to endure was worth it and that the economy and country we help to build back will truly appreciate that Scottish businesses are like the people who run them – adaptable, innovative and resilient. And, at the heart of a healthy economy.
From the grassroots to the G20, the Chambers of Commerce Network is the world’s largest business-to-business network, best placed to support recovery, growth and jobs creation.
We have a unique opportunity to deliver something new, the change we want to see to support Scotland’s businesses in the coming decade, I am confident that together we can deliver it.