“Nice idea, but you’re a dreamer if you think it’ll ever come off.” The words of one Government official to me in a recent meeting.
The topic? Retailers’ need for some long-term certainty versus the all too short time frame many politicians work to.
To plan and invest, businesses need to know what’s coming. In retail, the norm’s a five-year planning cycle. That happens to equal the length of a parliament but political timescales tend to be driven by how long a minister is in their job, changes in departmental budgets and priorities or the latest media storm.
Businesses suffer as a result. We’re always going to be ready to respond to the unexpected – I’m not advocating being locked in to 10-year tractor plans here – but there are big gains to be had from policy makers looking to longer-term horizons, while keeping the flexibility to review and amend when appropriate.
And this isn’t a party political issue. As the revving of chainsaws signals competing claims of cutbacks, a more coherent approach would help civil servants and any government use our money more efficiently.
How many unnecessary consultations, sidelined reports and superseded campaigns could they save with a stronger emphasis on the ultimate objective?
As politicians return from recess on Monday, wouldn’t it be good if they all recognised that businesses make better decisions when they have confidence about the costs and regulatory regime they’ll face.
Take the minimum wage. This year’s 1.2% increase has just been implemented. Against current conditions that’s a sensible increase and one that BRC evidence played a big part in achieving. But where’s it going next October? We won’t know until the spring.
Any business will make different decisions about jobs if it fears a 5% or 6% minimum wage increase than if it can count on no more than another 1.2%, which is what we’re campaigning for. And years beyond that? Unknown.
For the future a clearer, more predictable relationship with average earnings would make a big difference.
We’ve seen that politicians can do long-term thinking, and when they do it helps retailers make their full contribution, such as on the 2020 climate change targets, or Food 2030.
If you want cultural change in behaviour you need agreed, consistent strategy – not the whim of the moment.
On something like emissions reductions, they should keep attention on recycling rates and home insulation, which will really contribute, rather than sidetrack efforts to the great distraction of carrier bags. On alcohol, stop pretending the mandatory code is something it’s not and concentrate on the real public-health prize of permanently changed attitudes.
Beneath the party posturing, there are many objectives that aren’t in dispute. Less short-termism would help meet more of them, so I’m going to keep pushing that dream.
- Stephen Robertson director-general, British Retail Consortium