Business West managing director Phil Smith: 2022 will be a year of challenges but also opportunities

January 4, 2022

With the ongoing impact of the pandemic, climate change and Brexit, 2022 will be another tough year for many Swindon businesses.

Phil Smith, managing director of Business West – the organisation behind the Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative – looks at the needs and challenges for this year? 

What do Swindon businesses need from the government as we start 2022?

My main message is that government must stop treating private sector businesses as a milch cow simply to support an ever-growing public sector.

In foreign trade relations, we simply must sort out our relationship with the EU – and France specifically – which has become very petty.

Global trade has generally become more difficult over recent years so there is even more reason to make the UK be seen to be far more acceptable in the world.

Do businesses now need to learn to live with Covid?

I think we do have to live with it. This time I am worried that some of the businesses that are currently suffering might never come back from this latest Covid wave.

Many in the hospitality sector that were already short of cash have been dealt a crippling blow at their busiest periods, just when they needed Christmas to recover their losses.

Fighting to stay in business through Covid, companies need more clarity from government more quickly, as has happened in Wales and Scotland.

Businesses take time to cancel supplies, stop production lines and stand down staff. Even if it is bad news, being told as soon as possible is a must.

What are the big projects in the South West that excite you?

The whole green economy sector is very exciting for this region. While the sun is in short supply, this region is blessed with wind, waves, currents, tides and some leading businesses in this field.

It would be great to see government sponsorship of big projects such as the proposed fusion plant at Berkeley or an electric car plant at the Gravity site in Bridgwater, or even, at last, some way of capturing power from the tidal reach of the Severn Estuary.

I am also interested to see what will happen in city centres during the coming year. How business, local authorities and government will respond to the working-from-home pattern as a result of Covid, and the knock-on medium-term impact this will have on our city centre economies.

How important is the new Western Gateway powerhouse?

I see the Western Gateway partnership as a great opportunity for us but a lot depends on what [Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] Michael Gove and the government decide is the best way to devolve power from Whitehall.

However, whatever route they take, ambition to level up this country will take more than one government’s change of policy. It will take a few generations to redress the balance from a UK tilted towards London and the South East.

But we also need to sort out ourselves locally. It is disappointing to watch the unedifying spats that are going on in Bristol and the West of England regarding mayors when all we want is concerted clear leadership of the public realm.

What is your message from Business West to Swindon businesses – especially small and medium-sized ones – for 2022?

I return to my opening theme. We should not be relying on ‘big government‘ to sort out all our problems.

The Covid experience has unfortunately pushed us in this direction but it’s ultimately only private sector enterprise and wealth creation that will move us forward.

We are entering a new industrial era in response to climate change, and while government can stimulate with some ‘grand projects’, it is South West businesses that should be forging this future too.

The UK is as well positioned as any country on the planet to lead in this emerging green-and-blue economy.

And the South West, in particular, with its natural assets, skill base and appetite, should be at the vanguard of this next industrial revolution. We must not fluff this amazing opportunity.

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