Former Trade and Industry Secretary Lord Heseltine had cold comfort for Sheffield City Region manufacturers when he delivered the keynote speech at the Cutlers’ Feast.
Anyone hoping for news of a bonfire of regulations or tax allowances to get industry investing would have been sorely disappointed by the man charged by successor Vince Cable to take a searching look at the government’s industrial strategy and its impact on the rest of the economy.
Instead, they heard echoes of Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
After criticisms of the Queen’s Speech, Rotherham-born Mr Hague called on industry to get on with the task of creating more jobs and more exports, “rather than complaining about it.”
Meanwhile Mr Hammond accused business leaders of “whingeing” and being unwilling to take risks to invest.
In his Cutlers’ Feast speech, Lord Heseltine did both – although a touch more diplomatically.
Rather than target businesses in general, Lord Heseltine took aim at Chambers of Commerce and trade associations.
Ignoring the fact that many continental Chambers enjoy 100 per cent membership because local laws have required all businesses to join, he contrasted their ability to represent the views of business with British Chambers, where one in ten firms might be members.
“Do your Chambers of Commerce or trade associations give their members the support that is necessary, in common with those in competing economies?” he asked Cutlers’ Feast guests.
“Because they are voluntary, they have to reflect the views not of the best members, but the ‘slowest ships in the convoy.’ The consequence is that they turn up in London and whinge; they produce alibis and someone else is at fault.”
Lord Heseltine contrasted the performance of British and German companies, highlighting studies that showed 40 per cent of British companies were considered world class, compared with 60pc of German companies and the recent visit to Europe of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, which culminated in £1.6 billion-worth of orders for British firms and £14bn for German firms.
“We have some of the world’s great companies. They are out there winning (orders) all over the world every day, but that is not the point. The question is “Is our average performance good enough? If it isn’t, how can you persuade the under-performing tail to try to keep up.”