One year on from the EU referendum, stop taking business resilience for granted

Stuart Lisle
UK business have continued to do what they do best during uncertainty: focus on growth (Source: Getty)

Today marks the one year anniversary of the EU referendum.

If a week is a long time in politics, then it feels like we’ve lived several lifetimes over the previous 12 months.

Just when we needed some stability, the UK government has started to resemble a premiership football club with frequent changes at the helm and rumours about the future of the new incumbent.

Read more: Brexit a year on: Four graphs that show how the economy responded

The populist politics that many blame for the referendum vote has continued to shape global events – putting a reality TV star in the White House, and the leader of a party founded just one year ago in the Elysee Palace.

All this is on top of an already rapidly moving business environment, where technological changes are having a fundamental impact on models and markets.

The well-used cliche that we are living in changing times is a well-used cliche for good reason.

How is change playing out in the market place?

With so much happening, this anniversary seems the right time to pause for breath and look around us. How is all this change playing out in the market place?

BDO’s own business trends survey – which covers over 4,000 different respondents from companies employing approximately 5m people – is a good bellwether.

Growth has been resilient over the year, but in the last few months there appears to be a growing disconnect between what businesses are experiencing now and how they expect their order books to develop in the coming six months. Current output levels are at their lowest for four years, yet UK business people are strongly optimistic.

Optimism and uncertainty

Optimism is often a good precursor for growth, ensuring businesses continue making the right confident hiring and investment decisions, which are key ingredients of economic success. Nevertheless, realism suggests that current optimism levels may be fragile.

Our latest European export index also shows a complex pattern. UK export growth has outperformed both Germany and France for five consecutive quarters. However, UK exports are now showing signs of a slowdown and there is a risk that raw material inflation, driven by sterling’s depressed value, could lead to export prices increasing and a reversal of fortunes.

How to sum all this up? UK businesses have continued to do what they do best during the uncertainty of the last year: focusing on growth and success. However, as we head into the Brexit negotiations with a far from stable domestic political situation, there are storm clouds on the horizon.

It is vital that the government, whether due to the distraction of Brexit or a delicately balanced Parliament, doesn’t take the resilience of UK business for granted. It must focus on creating a business friendly landscape in the UK – more so than appeared to be the direction of travel in the various manifestos.

At BDO, we want policy makers to help nurture and support a “new economy” which enables the UK to thrive post-Brexit by focusing on three key areas: making the most of our mid-sized entrepreneurial businesses, balancing growth by sector and by region, and ensuring open and simple access to world markets and global talent.

How can these three aims be achieved?

Our “new economy” report outlines 22 policies we think will lay the bedrock for economic growth through the support of mid-sized companies that are the economic engine of our economy.

Here are two crucial priorities. First, the government should take steps to streamline the UK tax system and choose simplicity over subsidy to support the economy. Simplicity in doing business will give the UK a competitive advantage that does not breach EU rules.

This should include a pause on all new business tax policies that do little but further complicate the system. In a recent survey the majority of our clients would accept a higher effective tax rate in exchange for greater simplicity.

Second, focus has historically been on big ticket infrastructure. We believe that the government should also focus on smaller “shovel ready” projects that can get off the ground quicker and have a more immediate economic impact.

Creating local infrastructure improvements that enable businesses across the UK to thrive will support growth more quickly.

So on the anniversary of the EU referendum, my message to policymakers is simple. Businesses are playing their part but their resilience shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Now is the time to be brave in creating a business friendly environment for our post-Brexit future.

Read more: Focus on business environment and universities after Brexit, report urges

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