On the cusp of being great again

There is no doubt that the economy has turned a corner. Many companies are accelerating their pace for the first time in years, with others saying they’re set to do the same.

Our research is now showing business confidence levels not seen for decades, with our most recent survey of exporting businesses suggesting that 72 per cent expect their turnover to improve this quarter – the highest figure on record. And this is translating into jobs growth, with nearly a third of exporters saying they expect to hire more staff over the next three months.

This counts for a lot as it shows that firms have the ambition to export even more in 2014 and significantly boosting UK business overseas will be the key to sustainable high growth at home.

Although Britain’s economic prospects are looking good, they have the potential to become great. Business confidence is key to making this happen. The firms I meet across the length and breadth of the UK are working hard, want to grow and are certain of their own abilities.

But this confidence needs to be nurtured so it becomes stronger still. To secure lasting economic success, we will need to see a step change in support for our businesses in achieving their ambitions.

Businesses across the UK need better access to the finance that will lubricate the wheels of international commerce, but currently this is still far too scarce. I see capable, enterprising businesses that have turned down orders as they simply haven’t got the resources or capital to fulfil them.

To secure lasting economic success, we will need to see a step change in support for our businesses in achieving their ambitions

This is compounded by the “cost of doing business crisis” in the UK, with firms being hit by increasing business rates bills and energy costs aggravating already uncertain cash flow. Infrastructure improvements are also vital as they help businesses connect to, and communicate with, overseas markets, and safely transport their products and staff across the UK and beyond.

But businesses need the knowledge and skills to make this happen. Every business is built upon people, and without access to a rich talent pipeline of dynamic, young workers with a global outlook, firms will struggle to sustain future success at home and abroad. This is why it is so crucial that employability is put at the heart of the education system, to ensure the UK has a workforce that is fit for purpose in a 21st-century economy.

And while some businesses struggle to obtain finance, others – especially large corporates – are cash rich and must be better incentivised to invest. Many are worried about uncertainties surrounding the eurozone and the US debt crisis, and understandably so. But to offset these perceived risks, the government has to make it more attractive for companies to invest by offering new tax incentives to trading businesses.

The business community is counting on government to finally break the status quo, and provide reassurance that they will be able to access the capital, people and physical infrastructure needed to deliver competitive products and services to markets around the world.

It is, of course, heartening that Britain is now among the fastest growing advanced economies. But more must be done to shore up the foundations of this recovery.

At the British Chambers of Commerce we will be here to support businesses every step of the way, fighting for their best interests at both a local and national level. And we will be urging the government to focus on measures that will create an environment which encompasses enterprise, to boost the confidence of small and medium-sized businesses even more, so they can become the UK’s global champions of the future.

John Longworth is director general of the British Chambers of Commerce and former executive at Asda, Tesco, the Co-op and British Retail Consortium.