The CBI's pre-conference survey (of 121 business bigwigs), found that within the UK, more companies are planning to invest overseas than at home, while nearly half expect their growth to come from overseas markets. The UK, it says, is now lagging behind the likes of India, China, the US and even Canada - largely because of worries over issues like taxation, regulation and skills. 'The UK needs to improve in the areas that really matter, otherwise other nations will steal a march on us,' CBI boss Richard Lambert said today.
The Coalition knows that it desperately needs the private sector to invest in job creation if its numbers are going to add up. And it's already come under fire from the Opposition for its non-existent growth strategy. So it's no surprise that growth was the PM's main focus today as he addressed the CBI conference, bullishly insisting that the coming years were an opportunity for Britain to 'transform our fortunes'.
His plan seems to be in two parts. The first is a more 'pro-enterprise attitude' – things like removing regulatory obstacles, lowering business taxes, and improving access to finance. He also seemed to have some reassuring things to say about immigration, suggesting Government policy will 'not impede you from attracting the best talent around the world'( a relief to many).
The other priority will apparently be a 'more hands-on attitude', with the Government 'getting behind key industries in every region of the country'. That’s partly about focusing on the stuff we're already good at - like offshore wind farms (for which the PM announced £60m of investment). But it's also about how the Government spends its money: so more cash for infrastructure (as per the CSR), £200m on innovation centres to help commercialise research, and more Government contracts for SMEs.
Cameron insisted that his plan will help businesses across the size spectrum: 'To create the growth, jobs and opportunities Britain needs, we've got to back the big businesses of tomorrow, not just the big businesses of today,' he said today. But not everyone's convinced. 'There's some concern among delegates that most of these measures will benefit medium-sized businesses that are already growing, as opposed to early stage ventures that arguably need a greater degree of support,' says MT's Hannah Prevett, who's at the conference for us today (she’s also tweeting from @MT_editorial).
Admittedly, as Cameron admitted today, changes like these will take time to bring about. Take access to finance: figures out today show that lending to non-financial companies was down £3.3bn last month, the biggest fall since January, so efforts in that area are not bearing fruit yet. All of this stuff sounds great in theory, but can the Government deliver in practice? And can it do it in time to offset the decline in the public sector in the next few years?