Russell Borthwick: Is anyone listening? This is an economic emergency too

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THE Centre for Economic Performance recently suggested that up to 900,000 small and medium-sized enterprises, accounting for 2.5 million jobs, are at risk of imminent closure in the first few months of this year.

Did that get your attention?

If we fail to take the right decisions now and implement them with urgency, the outcome will be years of different physical and mental health, social and economic challenges that will dwarf those seen so far.

This is the stark reality.

We can rebuild but red tape has to be cut and real pace introduced. Sacred cows must be challenged.

It’s not okay to take emergency action in dealing with the immediate crisis but return to accepted norms as we come out the other side.

At a recent Chamber roundtable with a senior Scottish Government minister, it was said in response to a member question about the crippling impact of business rates on the north-east region in particular that it was not appropriate to interfere with the independent assessor process.

Yet it has been perfectly acceptable to interfere with tens of thousands of independent businesses by instructing them to turn their lights out for an infinite period.

Yes infinite. As I write still no timeline, no visibility of reopening for businesses that are closed or with their operations severely limited. A process being determined solely at the pace of those concerned only with public health.

Ironically, the most dangerous time for many affected businesses will come in the aftermath of eventually being able to reopen but with cash flow challenges and demand not restored to previous levels.

As Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Businesses don’t just need support during the darkest days of the pandemic, they need support when they’re battling to reopen successfully and rebuild their demand.

“Governments and financial institutions must recognise that businesses need fiscal help and forbearance through the whole of 2021, even if vaccines allow a spring or summer reopening of the economy.

!When a runner finishes a marathon, you give them warmth and sustenance, not just abandon them to their fate. It should be no different for the businesses that have done so much to keep going through the most difficult period in living memory.”

We do need government to play the long game with unprecedented investment in infrastructure and skills.

And there must not be a cliff-edge for support schemes, recalling of loans before businesses are in a position to repay and a raft of immediate tax increases to mitigate the cost of our response to the crisis.

First, we had the B word and wished something, anything would replace it in the headlines.

Careful what you wish for as 12 months ago, came the C word.

And the impacts of both Brexit and Covid are now wreaking carnage on our business communities. As attention shifts to May’s Holyrood polls, we cannot afford for it to be a single issue election – 100 per cent of everyone’s focus and energy has to be on supporting our economy to recover.

As in any challenging period, businesses and places that come out the other end most strongly are those that adapt and innovate while not losing sight of their core strengths and long-term strategy.

We will be in a highly competitive environment as we seek to secure the projects, investment and people that will drive our recovery and future ambitions.

Russell Borthwick is chief executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce

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