Business leaders in Swindon recently joined together, as is customary these days, via Zoom to engage with their local MPs (Robert Buckland and Justin Tomlinson) and Leader of Swindon Borough Council, Cllr David Renard, in a meeting hosted by Business West.
North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson was the first of our local representatives to address the group of business leaders representing some of Swindon’s largest employers.
Regarding the former, the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health acknowledged a bright spot amongst the overall gloomy outlook for the economy – making mention of the fact that the UK economy grew 6.6% in July following the reopening of pubs, bars, restaurants and non-essential retail.
Nevertheless, the economy remains 12% down on pre pandemic levels, with the MP pointing to the country’s reliance on services as a factor that leaves the UK comparatively more exposed to the effect of lockdown.
“We are strangely affected in the UK by lockdown as a result of our economy being made of 71.3% services”, he said before quickly previewing the Chancellor’s spending review, where more support is expected to be pledged on behalf of the Treasury.
Despite the many economic challenges we continue to face as a result of coronavirus, the IMF has commended the UK government on the measures implemented to aid the economic recovery added Mr Tomlinson before outlining the benefits of the Kickstart Programme to businesses.
Business West is acting as an intermediary for the scheme which is designed to help create hundreds of meaningful jobs for young people aged 16-24 year olds claiming Universal Credit.
Turning to more local matters, Mr Tomlinson was full of praise for Swindon Borough Council’s Director of Public Health, Steve Maddern, under whose leadership Swindon managed to avert a potential local lockdown.
It was widely reported that Swindon could be the first town in the South of England to go into local lockdown, but this thankfully was avoided due to strong leadership on part of Swindon Borough Council.
Mr Tomlinson then turned attention to Brexit, reassuring businesses that government is doing all it can to secure a deal and prepare for a potential no deal scenario.
He mentioned there were a few pinch points, including around disagreement over the UK government’s ability to provide state aid to businesses, an issue which Mr Tomlinson said is vital to resolve if government is to have all the tools at its disposal to incentivise foreign investment in the longer term. He assured businesses that talks were continuing to progress positively.
Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland greeted business leaders and praised the hard work of the Swindon Public Health team, which has received praise from the Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock, having managed to control workplace-based outbreaks in the town. As regards future government policy making in response to the pandemic Mr Buckland said, “Make no bones about it, the economy and education are a priority”.
On the issue of Brexit, the Minister, who has been closely involved in trade talks, confirmed that the government is fighting tooth and nail to secure a deal by 15 October.
The meeting’s Chair Mike Godfrey then introduced Cllr David Renard, who outlined SBCs work providing advice to town centre businesses to be COVID safe. And, some good news, their efforts are working. Footfall is back to between 75-80% of pre COVID levels, which compares favourably to other towns and cities, with traders confirming that they are doing well. Cllr Renard also told business leaders on the call that SBC has implemented a fast track licensing system to allow cafes and restaurants to trade on the street.
Addressing longer term infrastructure and investment issues, Cllr Renard said that government continues to be supportive of Swindon, with the M4 works and upgrade of Moonrakers junction a case in point.
Cllr Renard, who has represented Haydon Wick Ward since 2002, also gave an update on developments including The Carriage Works, Fleming Way Bus Boulevard, RAU’s new Swindon site and Kimmerfields.
The Council Leader also spoke about the potential to provide start up and residential space in the town in and around the Parade and Brunel Centre.
A lengthy Q&A session followed. Peter Allen of Catalent raised concern about schools returning and the risk of introducing coronavirus to the workplace and Niche Recruitment sought clarity over government guidance urging workers to return to the office.
As the Q&A session came to a close, Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative Chair Mike Godfrey thanked Robert, Justin and David for their continued support and engagement on behalf of the Swindon business community.