By Stuart Patrick

In his recent speech at the Barclays campus in Glasgow, First Minister John Swinney delivered a message that strongly resonates with our Chamber members: a call for less strategy and more action from his government.

He emphasised a blunt demand: “I want the first question we ask ourselves to be: what can we do, rather than what can we write down.”

In early 2022, Glasgow Chamber members had made it very clear that they were already sceptical of the frequent requests they were getting from Scottish Government officials for responses to consultations. It was not simply the sheer quantity – though a report from Our Scottish Future late last year suggested an average rate of one per week over the past decade - but also the perception that the business voice was not a high priority when consultation submissions were being assessed.

Despite this scepticism, Glasgow Chamber’s target list of projects for delivery emerged; actionable priorities as opposed to mere plans on a page. These include investment in the recovery of Glasgow city centre, in the next stage of the expansion of the Scottish Event Campus, in the delivery of the Clyde Metro light rail public transport system, in the growth of Glasgow’s three university-led innovation districts and in the recovery of the route schedule at Glasgow Airport.

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A member meeting with Mr Swinney shortly before Nicola Sturgeon resigned was dominated with concerns about policies felt to be damaging to business growth. This included alcohol advertising restrictions, the complexities of the deposit return scheme, housing rent controls and the government’s negative position on licensing further oil and gas fields.

It fell to Mr Swinney to mount a stout defence, although he made it clear that he wanted to keep open channels of communication. Some progress was made under Humza Yousaf’s leadership with the suspension of both the alcohol advertising proposals and the deeply unpopular deposit return scheme.

A formal process for engaging with business views on forthcoming legislation was embedded in the New Deal for Business and it will be interesting to hear what the future now holds for the Regulatory Review Group chaired by Professor Russel Griggs. The group made a public intervention on the Heat in Buildings Bill, expressing "significant concerns" that the delivery dates proposed for implementing heating standards for both domestic and non-domestic buildings were unrealistic. There were welcome signs, therefore, that business views were gaining greater prominence within the administration.

Now Mr Swinney has made it very clear that he wants to drive action and a government "that is engaged with, and supportive of business". Economic growth has returned as an explicit priority and there would be no disagreement among Chamber members when the First Minister argues that ‘economic growth creates opportunities for people to participate in our economy and valuable, skilled employment that brings fulfilment to individuals and those they support’.

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It is not simply that skills’ shortages have become chronic across industries as diverse as maritime, financial services and engineering. It is also a profound understanding within the city’s business community that our city cannot truly flourish when around a quarter of the city region’s working age population are not engaged in the labour market and just over a quarter of its children live in poverty. I suspect every business leader in the region would see that as nothing other than a disgraceful waste of talent. There is indeed - as the First Minister says - no conflict between growing the economy and tackling child poverty.

What then might the Scottish Government do to deliver action on economic growth in Glasgow City Region? Considering the impact of existing policies, looking at the balance of priorities in government spending and finding new ways for government to support fresh business investment would all be helpful, if not essential.

Glasgow city centre needs business investment to aid its recovery from the pandemic and the ongoing shift to online shopping. There is also a widely shared aspiration to increase the residential population.

However, the current Housing Bill has become an obstacle with the Scottish Property Federation arguing that as much as £3.2 billion of direct investment in 20,000 new rental homes is at risk because of uncertainty around rent controls.

Evidence from the planning pipeline in the city centre reinforces that view, with a healthy list of proposals for build-to-rent projects now nearly vanished and almost all new projects are exploring student accommodation instead. Reconsidering the implications of the Housing Bill for business investment is an urgent priority.

Looking again at the income tax differentials which have led to the emergence of a "Scottish weighting" in the recruitment market is also regularly mentioned by members and it is encouraging to hear  the Deputy First Minister suggest that, at the very least, the limit has been reached on income tax rates.

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We have been very successful in attracting business investment into Glasgow and especially into the International Financial Services District where the First Minister gave his speech. There is much more to be secured if we ensure that Scotland remains attractive to mobile talent.

In the balance of government spending, a recognition that education budgets deserve top priority would be strongly welcomed. Cutting budgets for universities and colleges is quite simply the wrong way to achieve economic growth or increase opportunities for those outside the labour market. The First Minister will also have our support in arguing for more competitive student visa policies from the next UK Government.

The First Minister emphasised the importance of investment in infrastructure – he mentioned Ardersier and Nigg as good examples. In Glasgow, I urge him to look closely at the opportunities emerging from the three innovation districts led by the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow. The next generation of industries in advanced manufacturing, life sciences and in enabling technologies such as space and photonics could be accelerated. He should also consider the success and potential of the Scottish Event Campus. It has so much more to offer.

Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long to know the plan of action. Mr Swinney has confirmed the Programme for Government will take place before Holyrood breaks for its summer recess at the end of June and with this, a pledge to publish a medium-term financial strategy, revised tax strategy and infrastructure investment plan.

We are optimistic about our region’s future and if the new emphasis truly focuses on action to support business investment, we will be the first to applaud.

Stuart Patrick is chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce