The pre-Brexit challenges facing UK SMEs, which predominantly focused on uncertainty about their future, have been compounded by further uncertainty about their future once the country has left the EU.
No business is happy with uncertainty when it needs to make decisions about investment, growth and employment. But that, unfortunately, is the current situation and likely to remain so for some time yet.
Businesses face the challenge of making decisions about where their future markets are likely to be and whether they should invest in growth or not. Another worry is not knowing what the terms of any deals might be in the future and how this might affect arrangements already made.
So, at the moment, many UK businesses are stuck in a spiral of genteel decline; they are making profits but not investing in their future, neither in people nor in equipment, new markets nor product development.
Already, employers are struggling to recruit the people they need, according to a survey of 1000 employers, released last week by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and the Adecco Group. The numbers of EU nationals coming into the country to work has been slowing and employers fear that some existing EU employees are considering returning to their home countries or working elsewhere. Manufacturing, healthcare, retail and hospitality have been among the worst hit, the survey found.
Without investment in the latest technology and in research and development the danger is that UK businesses will lose their competitive edge in fields where they are currently leading.
What businesses will want to hear
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) annual conference is at the QEII Conference Centre in Westminster on February 28 and there are three topics for debate. These are:
- Growing Business in the Regions and Nations
- Brexit: Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity
- Keeping the UK Competitive – vision 2030
While businesses from SMEs to larger corporates will be keen to hear more on the priorities in the Brexit negotiations, given that the deadline for triggering Article 50 is not until the end of March there is unlikely to be much information on this.
The chronic and long-standing imbalance between London and the rest of the country is also likely to be a significant concern to the BCC membership, who are present in every county throughout the country, and they will want reassurance from BCC National that their concerns will be represented and their voices heard.
Skills shortages, training, and perhaps what will happen about business’ ability to recruit from within the EU and elsewhere may well be high on the wish list as part of the discussion in the final debate of the afternoon on UK competitiveness.