Comment: CBI plan makes for export blueprint

Scott Reid. Picture: Greg Macvean
Scott Reid. Picture: Greg Macvean
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THIS week’s trade figures made for grim reading.

What little is left of Britain’s once towering industrial sector – chiefly motor manufacturing – is managing to sell its wares to the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America. Closer to home, however, the bruised and battered eurozone presents one almighty headwind.

Official figures suggest that there was a yawning £3.6 billion shortfall in trade of goods and services in February – the biggest deficit in six months.

Step forward the CBI, which today launches a multi-faceted plan to give the nation’s exporters a boost. Its package of measures includes a new tax-break for smaller businesses, a ­review of the practicalities of the ­Bribery Act and making export finance schemes easier to access.

In all, the lobby group outlines 11 recommendations in its new report, The Only Way is Exports: renewing the UK’s role as a trading nation. At least with its play on the hit TV show, the CBI can show it is “down wit’ da kidz”.

Some of the proposals have a familiar ring to them and similar fighting talk was used by CBI director general John Cridland in his New Year message. He reminds us today that the growing middle classes in blossoming economies such as Brazil and China want to purchase “leading” UK-branded goods and services.

Yet, he argues, the dependence on imports has become too great. “Ships are arriving in UK ports bringing in more goods than they take back,” Cridland observes.

The measures outlined in the CBI’s wish-list are certainly laudable but place demands on an already-stretched UK government.

Coalition ministers have shown a willingness to listen, and respond, to the concerns and demands of business. Specific recommendations in this latest report should be achievable without much delay or expense – ­incorporating export finance schemes into the new business bank, for ­example.

Most fast-growing firms harbour global ambitions but run scared at the perceived risks and costs of exploring new overseas markets. About a fifth of Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises currently export, compared with a quarter across the European Union.

The eurozone – still the largest single market for UK exporters – will remain a drag for some time. Other key economies have shown signs of cooling; figures yesterday revealed that annual car sales in India had fallen for the first time in a decade.

On a brighter note, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development believes that growth is picking up in most industrialised countries, with the powerhouse United States’ economy leading the way. The OECD’s monthly indicator for the 33 member countries – published yesterday – actually inched up slightly in February.

Would-be exporters have the world at their feet. They deserve every break the government can give.

Big freeze blows hot and cold for Halfords

Halfords has seen sales of bicycles slide, with only the hardiest of Lycra-clad souls venturing out during the big freeze.

Sales were down almost 9 per cent in the 11 weeks to 31 March, according to yesterday’s trading snapshot.

On the flipside, there was a double-digit gain in car maintenance revenues as demand soared for wiper blades and de-icing products. Seems that every snow cloud can have a ­silver lining.