Retail needs to see joined-up government thinking that understands you cannot increase costs from every angle all at once, says the BRC’s Helen Dickinson

Despite the infamous “F*** business” of Boris Johnson, he – and his then chancellor Rishi Sunak – listened carefully to the needs of the industry throughout the pandemic.

Johnson’s government implemented loan schemes, froze rates and acted on the intelligence retail leaders were providing.

Three years on, the situation could not be more different. From the apprenticeship levy to recycling schemes and business rates to net zero, the government shows little interest in using the scale and reach of retail to unlock investment in the things that matter.

This is a mistake. Retail is the ‘everywhere economy’, with a strong presence in every constituency in the country and a connection to every voter.

“Our future is inextricably linked to the health of the economy. Consumption accounts for around 60% of UK GDP and retail plays a major part in this”

Our industry represents around 3 million people – 2.7 million more if you include those in wholesale, transport, logistics, manufacturing and farming whose jobs are dependent on retail’s future.

Our future is inextricably linked to the health of the economy. Consumption accounts for around 60% of UK GDP and retail plays a major part in this.

Retailers also play a key role in keeping down inflation – one of the current prime minister’s five tests. And in driving forward productivity, delivering increases well above the national average.

We need the government to work with us to help take retail towards a better future – a net zero, digitally transformed industry providing higher-skilled, better-paid jobs and the best shopping experience for customers.

We see retail playing a greater part in re-energising our high streets, helping accelerate social mobility and economic growth in all corners of the country.

We want to be investing more in innovation, generating renewable energy, using green vehicles to help cut our carbon emissions and driving the circular economy.

But the relationship with government is broken – the process of policymaking has lost its way – and so this potential is being held back.

Our recent Manifesto for Retail outlines the potential, showing how retail, government and the public can benefit from a more coordinated approach to policy.

It is not enough to wait around for the next Budget, going through the motions of asking industry what it needs but failing to actually engage and collaborate with them.

We need a government that offers business leaders a seat at the table, engaging on key issues and understanding the commercial drivers of change from day one of any policy idea.

We need to tackle challenges together, supporting government with the wealth of experience that exists in every shop, warehouse and retail headquarters in the country.

“We need a reset in the ways of working and a reset on many of the policies government proposes”

The industry stands ready to work with the next government in a different way – sharing data and best practice, and identifying areas where retail can really make a difference – to realise retail’s full potential to deliver for customers, colleagues and communities.

We need a reset in the ways of working and a reset on many of the policies government proposes.

We want to see recycling systems – whether for packaging, textiles or electronics – increase recycling levels and recycled content, and deliver better infrastructure for the country, rather than pumping billions of pounds of cost to retailers with none of the economic or societal benefits.

We want to see a tax and business rates system that responds to the shifting sands of the economy, supporting rather than shuttering shops and encouraging retail investment.

We want to see an apprenticeship and training system that unlocks the billions of pounds retailers are putting into their levy pots – increasing the amount of training delivered and supporting even greater productivity increases – rather than just another tax.

And, perhaps most of all, we need to see joined-up government thinking that understands you cannot increase costs from every angle all at once.

The cumulative burden of regulatory and tax costs remains the biggest challenge retailers face. At a time when the economy teeters on the edge of recession, it is madness to continue to pile on more and more pressures.

So the challenge for the next government – Labour, the Conservatives or anyone else – is to listen, engage, reset and drive outcome-based decision-making using the scale and reach of our great industry to drive positive change.

It’s time the everywhere economy was put to good use.

LIVE index

Helen Dickinson will be speaking at LIVE 2024: Retail Week x The Grocer on March 12-13.

LIVE 2024 is the annual event that brings the need-to-know stories across retail and FCMG to the stage. The heroes behind the headlines will share the latest industry ideas with leaders across all key sectors.

This year Retail Week has joined forces with The Grocer to allow colleagues, competitors and change-makers to meet in a space that stimulates conversation and builds networks.