Survey shows sales and orders under pressure as West businesses lose faith in Govt’s Brexit plan

January 14, 2019
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Nearly 40% of West of England business owners back a second Brexit referendum while just one in 10 is confident the government will secure a good deal for the UK, according to the region’s largest business survey.

Worryingly, more than 40% of the senior managers and directors taking part did not know whether their business would be fully prepared when the UK leaves the European Union on March 29. 

And more than 45% did not know what they would do if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal.

The disturbing picture emerges from findings of the latest survey conducted among its members by Business West, the region’s largest business group and the organisation behind Bristol Chamber of Commerce and the Bristol Initiative.

The survey results – for the final quarter of 2018 – were released this afternoon just over 24 hours ahead of tomorrow’s crucial vote on Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. They show domestic and overseas business fell during the three months to December – with export sales and orders both slumping by 17% year-on-year. UK sales and orders both fell by 3% on an annual basis while the number of businesses increasing their headcount also fell at the same rate.

However, many businesses appear to be prepared to shrug off the impact of Brexit. Overall business confidence increased, with an increase of 10% who said they were more optimistic than three months previously – taking the total number expressing confidence in their future prospects to half of the 300 businesses taking part.

Business West said the number of negative comments from businesses around Brexit attached to the survey responses “showed that 2018 closed with some disappointing results for businesses, with worries mounting over the state of the Brexit deal”.

The government’s lack of progress in securing the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union prompted some angry comments from respondents, according to Business West. 

It highlighted comments from Val Hennessey, director of International House language school in Bristol,  who said: “I don’t know what is happening with the plan to leave the EU. Nobody does. Running a business in such uncertain times is like trying to plan for a visit to Narnia or Middle Earth.”

The unnamed owner of Bristol retail business added: “With the self-serving shenanigans of politicians and the uncertainty of what is going to happen next March, no one is spending. Money is stuffed in a mattress somewhere.”

And the owner of a property services firm in North Somerset, which was established in 1904, said it had survived – and thrived – despite two world wars and recessions by diversifying. “This is very different, with a very uncertain future in both transport and engineering,” they said.

Business West managing director Phil Smith, pictured, described the survey findings as “another quarter, another set of disappointing results”.

He added: “This has been a recurrent theme ever since the referendum of 2016. Uncertainty about Brexit and worries over the macro environment continue to weigh heavy on business performance and confidence in the West.

“The regional economy looked to be on the up slightly in the third quarter of 2018. However, the year closed with some disappointing figures, with worries mounting over the current state of the Brexit deal.

“The silver lining to all this in previous surveys has been export orders and export sales, but these were both down 17% year-on-year, showing that our trading partners overseas just cannot commit to buying British until a Brexit deal is tied up, with many having jumped ship from their UK suppliers many months ago.

“Our survey ran, for the most part, before Theresa May decided to delay Parliament’s meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement. The announcement of the Withdrawal Bill back in November seemed to at last offer the certainty that business had been calling for, and this may well go some way in explaining why business confidence has improved on the previous quarter.

“However, the fact that Mrs May now faces an uphill struggle to get her deal through Parliament seems to have prompted some angry comments from respondents, with many businesses contemplating life outside the EU and no deal.

“Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it is our role to help businesses. We’ve been doing it for 200 years – through good times and bad – and once the government finalises negotiations, we will continue to guide businesses with advice and export documentation support.”

The survey took place between November 16 and December 17.

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