Scots business leaders demand lower rates in 2011

LOWER business rates, more education and training, and further buying of local products and services by the public sector are among the demands made today by Scottish business groups.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC), used her New Year message to warn that Scotland's business rates were becoming uncompetitive with those in the rest of the UK.

She said Scottish businesses had been hit with a "double whammy" of the axing of transitional relief and a new surcharge on large retailers.

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Ahead of next year's Scottish Parliament elections, the SCC outlined policies it wanted the main political parties to pursue.

Cameron said: "It is vitally important that Scotland's politicians get the decisions right to guide the economy to sustained growth."

Her comments came just days after CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan attacked the SNP government's record on the economy, claiming that First Minister Alex Salmond's policies had harmed growth during the financial crisis.

In today's message, the SCC said the public sector needed to be judged on "output and results" rather than money spent and that it needed to offer "true value for money".

The business body also called for Scottish Government spending to continue to concentrate on infrastructure projects and for public sector procurement to concentrate on local firms whenever possible.

While recognising the "excellent" progress being made towards Scotland's renewable energy targets, the SCC also called for "a broad and balanced energy policy" to avoid energy shortages post-2020.

Cameron highlighted the need for investment in education and skills to give workers the talents needed by businesses. Her clarion call on education was echoed by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), which also called for Scottish Government policies to be measured against how they help young people.

Dr Lesley Sawers, SCDI chief executive, said: "Our young people are Scotland's greatest future asset.

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But they need the right mix of skills, experience and opportunities to allow them to realise their ambitions and succeed.

"Achievement in education doesn't just benefit individuals; it will help build a highly skilled, productive nation whose innovations and enterprises can compete and grow on a global stage."

Even amid budget cuts, Sawers said Scotland needed to protect the "international competitiveness" of its universities and colleges.

Meanwhile, CBI director-general Richard Lambert is today using his New Year message to reiterate the organisation's belief that the UK economy will avoid a "double-dip" recession, despite deep public sector cuts from the coalition government.

The CBI predicts that economic growth in the next three months will fall as low as 0.2 per cent, compared with 0.7 per cent during the third quarter of 2010.

Lambert will say: "With company balance sheets in reasonable shape and interest rates staying low, 2011 could be a year of opportunity."

In his New Year statement, British Chambers of Commerce director-general David Frost demanded more help for exporters and more support from banks for businesses that wanted to expand by investing in "people, machinery, premises and new ideas".

Frost also called for regulations to be stripped away to make it easier for firms to recruit and for further reform of the planning system in England.