Wiltshire businesses had the opportunity to sit down with their local MP, Michelle Donelan, at a Chippenham restaurant recently.
Organised by Business West, the roundtable event was attended by a diverse range of local businesses from across Michelle Donelan’s Chippenham constituency, which includes the towns of Bradford on Avon, Corsham and Melksham, as well as Chippenham itself.
Among the businesses in attendance were railway systems manufacturer Knorr-Bremse, wastewater treatment specialists Huber Technology, Melksham cheese exporters Coombe Castle International, and SMARTech – an energy management firm based in Corsham.
Discussion topics on the menu included local infrastructure challenges, apprenticeships and higher education, and, of course, Brexit, which was the focus of the most compelling exchanges between businesses and the Chippenham MP.
In light of the uncertainty which continues to hang over Brexit negotiations, businesses emphasised the importance of a meaningful transitional deal to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit, which in theory, would mean reverting back to trading under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
Michelle listened carefully to businesses concerns and said she was confident that this would be agreed, along with the future trading relationship, by March 2019 – saying it’s in the interest of both parties to agree to these arrangements.
Michelle, who voted against Brexit, also discussed the prospect of future trade deals with countries around the world, saying that she was optimistic that a good deal with the US in particular would be forthcoming.
The increased costs of imports and exports due to friction at the UK-EU border was also raised, with Michelle attempting to allay fears of more paperwork and border delays.
In addition to questions regarding the long-term prospects of a deal, businesses highlighted how high levels of uncertainty were having an impact on investment decisions, particularly in the case of Knorr-Bremse and Huber technology who are German owned engineering businesses with UK-based subsidiaries.
On the topic of engineering, discussion then turned to skills and the importance of retaining access to high skilled workers from the EU. Michelle suggested that post-Brexit immigration arrangements would facilitate continued access to these skills – but emphasised the importance of improving the skills base of the UK workforce.
Michelle, who sits on the Education Select Committee, spoke passionately about how Government is helping to tackle skills gaps in the region.
Further local issues were discussed, including local infrastructure. Initiative Manager Andrew Wells enquired about improvements to the A350, which were announced as part of a £345.3 million Government funding package to improve local roads and public transport.
The roundtable closed with a mention of town centre redevelopment in Chippenham and the surrounding area and Michelle provided an update on the Chippenham 2020 masterplan.
Commenting on the meeting Ian Larrard, Director of Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative, Business West, said:
“It was great to be able to sit down with Michelle and local businesses to highlight the challenges posed by Brexit in Chippenham and the surrounding areas.
“It is imperative that our MPs are as informed as possible about the business impact of Brexit, however, a number of MPs have told us that businesses are simply not getting in touch to raise their concerns.
“This is where Business West excels - standing in the space between government and the business world providing the unique voice that enterprise needs, while enabling government to truly understand the needs of business and facilitate economic success.“
Business West members in Chippenham are just the latest in the region to get around the table with their local representatives to talk about Brexit and other issues.
Next month, Business West is holding two more roundtable events with local decision makers. First, with Swindon’s MPs and Cllr David Renard on Friday 1 December, and again on 8 December with Claire Perry MP for Marlborough & Devizes.