Comment: Time to develop a pro-growth, pro-enterprise approach to Milton Keynes

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Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna was in Milton Keynes last week for the first ever International Business Expo.

Here the city’s parliamentary spokesman for Labour, Andrew Pakes, gives his view on the visit and the economic situation.

Innovation and commitment are the foundations of successful enterprise. Despite the struggling economy, and lack of clear support from government, innovative businesses are fighting back against the gloomy outlook.

Labour has stepped up its game on business development in recent months. Ed Miliband’s speech to the British Chambers of Commerce on business lending and the publication of the Cox review on overcoming short-termism in economic policy shows a new focus on getting Britain working for small businesses.

These themes were echoed at the first International Business Expo held at the stadium:mk on Friday, March 8. More than 1,400 people passed through the doors bringing together the best of business in Milton Keynes and the wider region. We were on site for the day to listen to local businesses and to help organise a Q&A with Labour’s Shadow Business team, led by Chuka Umunna MP.

Milton Keynes is important to Labour. The city remains at the centre of Labour’s hopes to win back seats at the next election. It also tells an important story about the partnership between business and decision-makers at all levels.

The strength of the local economy is down to the drive of business leaders, not government. Politicians of all hues need to learn how to listen better to businesses, and how to use policy to complement the efforts of good businesses on the ground.

It was good to see SEMLEP at the event, the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership, and to hear more about their work with the Milton Keynes Business Leaders to grow the economic base in the region.

Listening to the debate, what came out clearly was the frustration that small businesses have at the lack of support from UKTI and central government. From the preponderance of large corporations being invited on international trade trips with ministers, to the effective exclusion of small business from public sector procurement, small business loses out.

Business after business commented that from getting anything from loans to export support, as successful small businesses, they pretty much had to do it on their own. This is big news in a city in which around 80 per cent of businesses are small or medium sized. No one came forward with a story of how government is either helping small businesses in Milton Keynes or even creating an environment where our businesses can prosper.

These are issues being picked up by Labour’s Small Business Taskforce.

As Ed Miliband has said, we need banks that serve our businesses, not businesses that serve our banks. It was good to hear Labour’s Business team talk about an active business support and the need to provide long-term stability beyond the usual political cycle.

As to what that looks like, Parry Mitchell and Ian Wright talked of a genuine British Investment Bank businesses can deal with direct. We need to learn from successful examples across the EU, such as the long-term relationship German regional banks have with small businesses, leading to informed decisions when it comes to lending.

A regional bank working in tandem with our LEP would be a huge asset for Milton Keynes and for investment in business. Despite the rhetoric, the Government has not made a difference. Net lending fell by £4.5 billion in the last quarter. Instead, we risk losing out in our main market due to the Government’s ideological game-playing over Europe.

A future Labour government needs to work smarter, using public procurement to benefit British businesses and promoting apprenticeships and higher skills. Young people are graduating in to a world of unpaid internships.

That is something we have to change. People will change careers two or three times in their lives and we need to keep up-skilling and re-skilling as we go. In the short-term, the Government should temporarily cut VAT to get people spending and cut NICS to make it easier for business to take on extra staff.

Milton Keynes is built on a pioneering spirit from the founding on the Open University to the new city itself. It is an example of the power of enterprise and government action working together, first through the development corporation, now through the Local Enterprise Partnership.

In the coming months we will be holding further business events to develop a pro-growth, pro-enterprise approach to Milton Keynes. Our job now is to keep it real. If you want to contribute to the debate please contact us on info@andrewpakes.org.uk.

Andrew Pakes is the Labour & Co-operative Parliamentary Candidate for Milton Keynes South