2017: the year that was the year after the year before?

Phil Smith
Managing Director | Business West
21st December 2017

After a tumultuous 2016, many of us were perhaps expecting 2017 to be something like the morning after the night before.

What seemed like a good idea at the time, was sure to leave us all with a bit of a headache come 2017. For businesses facing up to the realities of Brexit, theirs is a headache that can’t be remedied with a full English either.

Skills shortages, delayed orders, supply chain issues are just some of the very real impacts businesses are experiencing in advance of Brexit, not to mention the uncertainty that has dogged their decision making capabilities throughout this year.

Whereas the snap election was meant to strengthen the Government’s hand in the Brexit negotiations, it turned out to be something of an own-goal for Mrs May, weakening her majority in the Commons.

This, in addition to business rates, interest rates and red-tape fed into a growing sense of malaise amongst business owners, who in 2017 began to feel that Government is no longer on their side. But in recent weeks things seem to have turned a corner.

The fug around Brexit may at last be gradually lifting. There was a breakthrough in negotiations earlier this month, with both negotiating parties guaranteeing the right to remain for UK citizens in Europe and EU citizens in the UK. We know that a transitional deal is probable, Irish border issues are apparently solvable and differences between London and Brussels are seemingly not insurmountable.

For the UK economy as a whole, Government got the basics right in its Industrial Strategy whitepaper. Skills investment pledges and new measures to support and scale up tech businesses are also to be welcomed.

The hangover of 2017 has been punctuated with positive new developments and new beginnings for the region, which have helped to ease it somewhat.

In terms of transport and infrastructure investment, the election of the West of England’s very first Metro Mayor, Tim Bowles, back in May, brought with it a £1bn kitty to help business in BANES, Bristol and South Gloucestershire. Mayor Marvin Rees unveiled some exciting new plans for a metro system in Bristol (watch this space). Gloucestershire has begun to get to grips with the notorious A417, having started the consultation process. Swindon is becoming a regional centre for electric vehicles. The new GWR trains on the London line are up and running. Bristol Airport is expanding. The Severn Bridge toll is going. Gigabit broadband is coming.

Regarding skills, the SGS Berkeley Green campus opened up in Gloucestershire. West of England LEP and WECA are making moves to set the skills agenda for a generation in the West of England, something we are supporting through our Skills West project. STEM is well and truly on the agenda for businesses and decision makers in Swindon. And our own Ian Bell has been a vocal champion of universities and keeping graduates in Bath.

In terms of housing, completion rates are good and quality is getting better.

As far as culture and place making goes, Colston Hall is about to embark on a radical transformation. Swindon Museum and Art Gallery is shaping up nicely, building on the great work put in by Switch on to Swindon. Bristol European City of Sport is set to leave a sporting legacy in local communities and workplaces across Bristol. New BIDs for Gloucester and Clifton Village were approved this year and the visitor economy looks set to go from strength to strength.

This year we have had more than our fair share of Queens Award winners. A diverse range of sectors are booming, from food & drink and aerospace, to professional services and manufacturing. Innovation  is everywhere and we’re increasingly being recognised as a great place to invest and do business at a national and international level. Riding on the back of devalued sterling, West Country exports are on the up, with Business West authorising more export documents last month than any month since 1823!

So, despite the hangover, enough good has happened in 2017 to leave me feeling optimistic about the year ahead.

However, my advice for the New Year remains the same as last year. Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. 

Government will aim to gain maximum access to EU markets while reclaiming sovereignty (not easy). GDPR  comes into force on 25 May and fines are heavy. Inflation is on the rise. Growth is stagnating. So, yes, there will be challenges, but there’s one crumb of comfort – at least we won’t have the hangover of 2016 to deal with!

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