As Brexit talks approached their crunch point, Cabinet Minister and South Swindon MP Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC addressed Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative members, alongside North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson and Cllr David Renard.
Given the timing of the meeting, which was held over Zoom, the ongoing trade talks with the EU were at the top of the agenda.
Regarding the issue, both MPs stressed that work continues behind the scenes to plan for every possible outcome. “Even if there is a deal, there are changes coming” said Justin Tomlinson, highlighting the fact that regardless of whether the UK can reach an agreement with Brussels in time, the free movement of goods and people between the UK and EU will end come 1st January.
Speaking about the practicalities of ratifying a deal in advance of this cut off point, Robert explained that contingencies would be put in place to allow Parliamentary approval of any deal and that it is highly likely that a deal would pass.
Off the back of a recent survey by Business West, which shone a light on the damaging effect of a no-deal outcome, Director of Policy Matt Griffith put some pointed questions to the MPs regarding the impact of Brexit on Swindon businesses.
Mr Griffith recounted the experience of locally based exporter and pressed the need to secure a deal and provide a brief period of respite for businesses. He also raised the issue of labelling for food and drink companies. UK food and drink producers that wish to continue exporting to the EU from 1st January need to provide a registered business address on the continent. Whilst larger exporters have already made plans to overcome this hurdle by establishing operations on the continent, smaller businesses are reliant on working with distributors or entering complicated relationships with end suppliers. The Business West Policy Director also suggested that border officials treat businesses with leniency for up to 6 months as they get up to speed with the latest regulations.
The MPs said that these issues were known to government and thanked him for his input.
Turning attention to coronavirus, Mr Griffith then questioned the timeline of CBILS loan repayments. ‘Why are repayments due to kick in next year?’ he asked when businesses and the wider economy could benefit greatly from revenues being invested in restructuring and growth rather than paying off debts.
The MPs explained that coronavirus crisis is fast moving and that government is looking at every possible avenue to help businesses get back on their feet.
Staying on the topic of COVID, North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson offered a number of reflections on the economic response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He began by highlighting ‘Small Business Saturday’ and said that the event is more important than ever this year to help small businesses begin to bounce back. As long-time supporters of the Initiative he said that he and Mr Buckland were hopeful that it would jolt “small retailers out of hibernation” and give them “a small window of opportunity” to recoup lost revenues as a result of lockdown restrictions. Parking charges had been cut to just £1 after 4pm to give retailers an extra boost this Christmas it was added.
The role that retailers play in providing entry level jobs is crucial for the economy the DWP Minister continued, adding that replacing retail jobs lost to COVID would be difficult, but absolutely necessary to cater for those starting out in their careers or requiring flexible hours.
Responding to the “devastating news” of the closure of the Oasis leisure centre, Mr Tomlinson was firm in his commitment that whilst “sometimes world events overtake things” under no circumstances should Swindon lose this valuable community asset. He stressed that the centre could be modernised and saved with a modest amount of investment and that he would be working toward this end.
Mr Tomlinson ended his address to members on a positive note, stating that the economic recovery in Swindon had been better than expected, due in part to the swift action of Swindon Borough Council in getting grant funding out of the door to businesses. A figure totalling more than £30m according to our next guest speaker, Council Leader David Renard.
Echoing the point regarding a swift economic recovery, Cllr Renard said Swindon compares favourably to other towns and cities, meaning that the future looks promising.
Local investments such as the Zurich project would aid this recovery, so too would projects in the pipeline, such as the Future High Streets Fund bid for a bus boulevard and the Town Investment Plan bid submitted in late July, which received strong backing from the Swindon MPs.
On another point of interest, Robert Buckland shared news of work being undertaken by his Department to enable businesses to recover debts more quickly. Overdue payments can have a devastating impact on cash flow, particularly for SMEs and have been the subject of campaigning by the British Chambers of Commerce of late. Taking debt recovery online and modernising the court system to make it easier for businesses to recover debts was an example of how technology is improving lives for the better he said.
Onto the Q&A, vaccine passports were discussed as a way of reopening business travel.
Mr Buckland responded by saying that he agreed with the WHO that the idea is problematic without a full vaccine rollout, but that government was considering it under close consideration. Nadhim Zahawi, the MP with responsibility for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment at DHSC, is also a Minister for BEIS minister he said and keenly aware of business sentiment on the issue.
The issue of local coronavirus restrictions and pubs was then raised, with the Swindon MPs offering acknowledgment of the situation, particularly for ‘wet pubs’, who are particularly vulnerable.
They went on to stress the need to retain these historic parts of our community, which is why £1,000 support payments for ‘wet pubs’ were recently announced, but admitted that government faces a dilemma in choosing between keeping pubs open and education. They said that education has to be a priority and that by allowing carers and parents to get on with their responsibilities there was a secondary benefit in terms of the economy.
Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative members Arkells are feeding back regularly to both Robert and Justin, who are lobbying hard on behalf of the pub trade in the corridors of Westminster.
Other questions and statements offered by the members present including the recent Social Housing Whitepaper.
The next quarterly MP/Council Leader’s meeting, which joins together our local representatives and the business community, will be held on 12th March.
In the New Year, the Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative will also be holding regular events with Wiltshire MPs Michelle Donelan and Danny Kruger and Wiltshire Council’s Leader, starting on 29th January.