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Don't lose focus on business challenges, warn East Anglian leaders after snap general election announcement

PUBLISHED: 18:02 18 April 2017 | UPDATED: 18:02 18 April 2017

East Anglian business leaders have warned Theresa May that politicians must not lose their focus on the challenges they face. Photo credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire

East Anglian business leaders have warned Theresa May that politicians must not lose their focus on the challenges they face. Photo credit: Philip Toscano/PA Wire

Business leaders in East Anglia welcomed the snap general election as a chance for stability - but warned that government focus must not slip from the challenges facing firms at a time of unprecedented turmoil.

They say companies which have been buffeted by uncertainty and economic upheaval since last summer’s EU referendum want reassurances their concerns will be at the heart of campaigning.

Meanwhile, fears were raised that discussions about the government’s key business policies – including consultations over the industrial strategy, the housing white paper and post-Brexit farming subsidies – risk being relegated down the agenda, at the expense of business.

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said businesses were concerned attention would shift “from the economy and the intricacies of leaving the EU to a potential election campaign”.

She added: “Firms want to see our local MPs give reassurance that the key challenges facing the economy will be front and centre throughout any election period.”

Richard Tunnicliffe, East Anglian regional director for the CBI, said the election should not endanger progress on the industrial strategy.

“Distraction from the urgent priorities of seeking the best EU deal and improving UK productivity must be kept to a minimum,” he said.

Salena Dawson, Federation of Small Businesses chairman for East Anglia, said the election campaign presented an opportunity for “small business issues” to be discussed by candidates of all parties.

However, Paul Pearce, investment manager at Hargreave Hale in Norwich, said markets would welcome stability if – as polls suggest – the Conservatives can cement a strong overall majority.

“The markets would appreciate it if we get the result the polls indicate, as we think we know which way we’ll be going forward, and the current government’s plans for Brexit negotiations,” he said, adding that volatility was likely in the run-up to the vote.

Visit East Anglia’s Pete Waters said stability would boost the region’s multi-billion pound tourism sector. “If a general election clears up the indecision over Brexit and allows the process to be concluded as soon as possible, and for us to know the way ahead, then that will be good for tourism,” he said.

FARMING

Farming leaders hope the election will offer a platform for long-term stability, but warned the work of government must not “grind to a halt” during the campaign – particularly regarding the timely payment of EU-funded subsidies.

Robert Sheasby, East Anglia regional director of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “The election campaign is likely to be dominated by Brexit, an issue which impacts on farming the most. It’s therefore absolutely imperative that our voice is heard to ensure the next government supports our vision for a new domestic agricultural policy.

“It’s a chance to discuss why it’s so important to continue to invest in agriculture once we are outside the (EU’s) Common Agricultural Policy.

“We will also be working hard to ensure the business of government doesn’t grind to a halt between now and June 8, so that issues such as BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payment and Countryside Stewardship delays continue to be addressed.”

INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY

Companies hoping to make longer term plans want the election result to bring stability.

The prime minister’s announcement came the day after consultation closed on the government’s industrial strategy and leaders will be waiting to see what part it plays in the campaign.

Simon Gray, chief executive of the East of England Energy Group, said the snap election was likely to cause a pause in investment. He said: “It does throw into question the government’s commitment to energy protocols and the Paris Climate Change agreement.

“Post-Brexit, will a strengthened and emboldened Tory party continue with all the energy policies we have agreed to?”

Charlotte Horobin, of manufacturing body EEF, said she hoped the election would prompt longer-term thinking. She said: “We know there will be doubt in the short-term period, but we think the gain of stability it will give us will be worth it.”

CONSTRUCTION

There are concerns in the construction industry that the government’s housing white paper – which promised to “fix” Britain’s “broken housing market” – could be forgotten in the general election/Brexit melee.

Saul Humphrey, East Anglian regional director for house builder Morgan Sindall, said: “There was a concern anyway about Brexit negotiations being the dominant issue.

“The white paper on housing was not high on the agenda. You put a general election into the mix as well and there are far fewer resources available for it, at a time when what our sector really needs is certainty.”

Mr Humphrey, who also chairs the New Anglia LEP’s construction and property group, added: “The construction industry would want to see more concentrated investment in infrastructure and a use of the apprenticeship levy to get better training for our industry and address our skills shortage.”

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