Retail can drive UK economy forward

Helen Dickinson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, says the next government should safeguard the considerable contribution of retailers to the UK economy


Our industry is amazingly resilient despite the recent economic uncertainty. We’re proud of our growing contribution, worth £321 billion of sales in 2013. But there is always the danger that politicians assume we’ll be there whatever happens and we will get on without the need for intervention. The reality is that the next government needs to focus on ensuring the underlying economic framework we operate in is fit for the retail of the future.

Pre-election there is enormous competition for the attention of politicians and the parties in turn compete for the attention of voters. In this febrile environment, it’s easy to make long lists of urgent demands, but the surest way to be heard is to come to the table with solutions that the next government can use to ensure our long-term economic prospects.

Let’s start with the way shopping is changing where the technical revolution means successful retailers offer a digital, highly personalised and better service than ever to customers through whatever channel they choose.

As high street retailers and out-of-town alike use the combination of cutting-edge technology and great showmanship to re-invent themselves, a new system for business rates needs to encourage growth, not stifle it. We need a system that speaks to the way we will trade going forward, not tinkers around with the way we’ve done it for the last 400 years.

We have more than three million people in retail careers, making us the largest private sector employer in the UK economy

We’ve been campaigning hard for change so we’re delighted that today’s conversation has shifted from caps and freezes to commitment to deep reform of the system from the next government.

One simple idea, which could be instigated before an election, is to support small businesses by taking them out of the system entirely. A huge amount of administration, time and money can be saved by relieving them of the burden of jumping through the hoops of small-business rate reliefs.

A business rates framework should generate substantial income for the Treasury when times are good, but when times are not so great it shouldn’t punish investment and squeeze small businesses. We can build incentives into the system to encourage companies to act to benefit the whole economic jigsaw.

The reduction of energy consumption and better energy efficiency is a key priority for all parties, so measures to encourage that should be built in. What we have now is roundly criticised by everyone, from retailers to car makers and pubs, for discouraging improvements that would make better use of energy, but put up rates bills.

A new government could do much more to help companies in the energy arena. The economy faces strategic energy challenges, including our reliance on imported fuels to bridge the energy gap.

One of the problems for our industry is the different scope and reporting requirements of energy and carbon use, leading to an unco-ordinated bundle of measures for investment decision-makers. This erodes confidence in what could be transformational technologies. We believe there should be a standard on scope and reporting requirements for energy use and carbon emissions to create a stable baseline for investment.

Whoever makes up the next government, employment will be a key issue. We have more than three million people in retail careers, making us the largest private sector employer in the UK economy. We are in a powerful position to be able to support new government policy on jobs for people of all ages, skills levels and backgrounds – just last year we created over 100,000 new apprenticeships.

Changes, such as allowing people over 25 to take up funded apprenticeships, will reflect the changing nature of work and the need for many people to retrain so they can move between sectors as the economy restructures. We need to ensure that we have the right people to fill the vacancies of the future in retail and want to work with the next government on developing the right skills in school, especially in digital technology.

Retail is a fast-changing, dynamic industry and, above all, we will need a government that fully recognises our value to the British economy and works with us to build success in the future, in the UK and around the world. Ending restrictive trade practices and ensuring foreign markets are accessible will be critical to the future of our international offering.

At the moment it’s very unclear who will form the next government, but one thing we do know for certain is that retail will be very well placed to contribute to the future success of the UK economy.