Following their success at the Welsh Business Awards earlier in the year, the Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns MP, invited winning businesses to meet with him for a dedicated roundtable event.
The award-winning business were encouraged to share the challenges they are facing, their recent successes, and what businesses want to see the government focussing on.
Alun Cairns started the discussion by congratulating all the winners and thanking the South Wales Chamber for organising the Awards and facilitating the opportunity for businesses to meet him. He explained that while the Chamber of Commerce does an excellent job of representing businesses, for politicians like him there’s nothing like hearing first-hand what it’s like to run a business in Wales today.
Our Welsh Business Awards winners took the opportunity to call on government to pay more consideration to the realities of doing business, especially in the areas of government financial support, public procurement and supply of property.
Businesses shared both positive and negative experiences of accessing finance. The overriding theme was that those making decisions on funding, particularly within the public sector, need to have more of an entrepreneurial mindset and understand the realities of business.
Restrictions are often put on what funding is available, meaning that businesses aren’t able to access funding for their specific needs. Businesses are also finding themselves waiting weeks, and sometimes months, for decisions. This is posing a major problem as the opportunity often passes before a decision is made.
The Secretary of State advised businesses to contact their MP, AM or councillor (depending on which level of government is taking the decision) if they are experiencing delays in getting outcomes. While politicians can’t influence the outcome of individual funding applications, they can sometimes get things moving and at least get answers.
Some businesses mentioned that they don’t bid for public sector contracts. It was felt that the public sector’s mindset over procurement needs to be challenged. Politicians are often heard saying how they want to support local businesses when buying in services for government, but too often procurement rules work against that happening.
An example given at the meeting was how, usually, local businesses are not given any advantage when bidding for contracts. Another business explained how difficult it can be to create partnerships with other local businesses to bid for contracts because of expectations in the judging criteria that businesses have a track record of working together. A difficult criteria to meet for partnerships specifically created for the tender.
The Secretary of State agreed that government needs to look at how it interprets procurement rules. He also encouraged attendees to look at the Crown Commercial Service website in addition to Sell to Wales to find tender opportunities from the UK government.
In addition, several attendees raised how difficult they have found it to find suitable premises. One of the issues is that the private sector has taken over most of the properties that would have previously been run by government, either directly or through organisations such as the WDA. This means that there isn’t currently the flexibility to provide incentives like there used to be.
Also, one of the businesses based in rural Wales raised the issue of skills migration – young people with higher level technical skills, which this business is crying out for, moving to live in cities and other urban areas, making it harder for many businesses in rural Wales to find people with the skills they need.
Before the meeting drew to a close, it was pointed out that Brexit hadn’t been mentioned once during the discussions. As well as providing as much information as possible to businesses about Brexit over the last three years, the Chambers of Commerce across the UK have been campaigning to get government to “fix the fundamentals”. While Brexit still looms over Welsh businesses, our politicians need to remember that whatever the outcome of Brexit, businesses still need access to finance, access to talented employees, access to good quality property and are looking to the government help them achieve this.
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