Sheffield companies can lead industrial revival, says Minister
Trade Secretary Liz Truss is backing Sheffield’s “fantastic” manufacturing industry and technology companies to help stir up an industrial revival in the UK.
In an exclusive interview, the cabinet minister said she is expecting “a strong recovery in trade from September onwards” as businesses bounce back from the Covid crisis.
Ms Truss said the rapid growth of video conferencing is breaking down barriers across the UK and the rest of the world.
The rise of communications tools like Zoom during the pandemic will have “a profound impact” on the way our companies trade, she added.
Local firms export goods worth nearly £2bn every year and the Made in Sheffield brand is internationally recognised as a mark of quality.
Ms Truss said: “We were performing very strongly in terms of trade before the Covid crisis and of course the crisis has had a major impact on trade but what we are determined to do is support every business across the country to restore their exports but also to get new exports.”
The Department for International Trade has launched a package of new export measures to support sectors including technology, agriculture, food and drink.
She said there is “a huge opportunity for British companies out there” as the Government negotiates new free trade deals across the world.
She pledged to get rid of red tape and tariff barriers to make it easier to sell products in markets like the United States and Asia Pacific.
Ms Truss wants her trade deals to include “exciting digital and data chapters” to help Sheffield technology companies increase global sales.
She singled out companies like data software specialist WANdisco - founded and led by our guest editor - and insurance technology provider The Floow.
Ms Truss said: “Tech is one of the huge success stories of Britain. We are third in the world in the number of billion dollar tech companies after the US and China.”
Her team is currently negotiating post-Brexit agreements across three continents using web-enabled technology.
She said the approach is breaking down the old concept of a round of talks with set discussions into a new format of video, text and email.
Ms Truss said: “You are able to cut through the theatre you inevitably have in real-life meetings. It’s more direct, the online communication.
“We are in the interesting position of not having started trade negotiations until Covid. So we have not worked in any other way as the UK. We feel like a bit of an exemplar country. We are making rapid progress in the negotiations. It is working well.
“I think it will have a profound impact on the way we trade. Some of the things we are talking about in the new export packages are things like virtual trade shows, being able to talk to customers without necessarily having to travel to the destination.
“It’s always good to meet people face to face to build the relationship. Once you have got the relationship, you can make things move a lot faster by working on video and I think it has changed business culture in a good way.”
Ms Truss said video conferencing will also help break down geographical barriers in Britain by making it easier for people to benefit from employment opportunities across the country.
She said: “All of these barriers are being broken down. That’s true in international trade but it’s also true in our overall objective of levelling up Britain as well.
“The way we are working now makes it a lot easier to coordinate across the country than the traditional ‘having meetings in an office’ set-up and people having to get on the train. I can see that being a different way of working which is now firmly established within Whitehall.”
Ms Truss added: “I have heard a lot of reports of companies that productivity has gone up and they are finding people working from home can be more productive. I agree you have to be careful there is a danger of being ‘always on’.
“People have to be given responsibility to manage their own lives. You have to give people freedom and autonomy in the way they are working. It will be interesting when we fully exit the lockdown how much things return to the way they were or how much we move forward.
“You get these innovations like social media or video conferencing but until you get a shift, people don’t necessarily use them in the way they could be used. What this created is the impetus for changing the way we do it.
“People are inherently quite conservative with a small ‘c’ and tend to carry on what they are doing until someone changes it. I think this change is releasing some of those productivity benefits. This crisis has forced us to think differently about the way we do things.
“No-one would have suggested conducting these trade negotiations by video conference. We had to do it in order to release the benefits of being an independent trading nation. We found new ways of doing it. In some ways, those ways have turned out to have advantages over the old ways of doing things.”
Ms Truss grew up in Leeds and attended state school in the city before reading philosophy, politics and economics at Merton College, Oxford.
She entered parliament in 2010 and since 2014 has held cabinet roles including Environment Secretary, Justice Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Ms Truss was appointed Trade Secretary in July 2019 and is responsible for securing new free trade agreements, while maintaining access to existing ones.
She said: “I’m very optimistic for parts of the country like Yorkshire. I’m originally from Leeds, I know it’s not quite the same as Sheffield and there is a rivalry there!”
Ms Truss said Yorkshire has “fantastic” sectors including agriculture, technology, financial services and traditional industry, adding: “I think we can really ferment an industrial revival particularly in the North of England and that’s what this Government is committed to do.