Trade deals and customs arrangements now dominate headlines about Brexit negotiations. Yet despite the prominence of these business issues in public debate and political agenda, we tend to hear relatively little from Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).
The White Paper The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union made numerous references to businesses (as well as consumers, workers and other citizens) but no specific mention of SMEs.
Manchester Metropolitan University organised two events to help fill this gap – one in London at the House of Commons and one in Manchester. They were part of the ESRC funded UK in a Changing Europe http://ukandeu.ac.uk/ initiative to promote information, insights and analysis about UK-EU relations. The aim was to share research and practitioner experience relevant to SMEs in the face of uncertainties related to leaving the European Union.
A Forum on SMEs in a Changing Europe, Manchester - June 2017
In Greater Manchester, uncertainty surrounding Brexit is compounded by the devolution agenda. If a post-Brexit economic policy is to address the needs of the business community as a whole, questions about the specific requirements of smaller businesses in the regions need to be asked.
This forum was held at Manchester Metropolitan University and brought together academic researchers, intermediaries and business owners to share insights into issues that have become important in the light of Brexit, and to consider key questions from an SME perspective. It was split into two thematic sessions each led by a one speaker from academia and one from practice.
The first session was on Globalisation, Devolution and Infrastructure. Kevin Albertson, Professor of Economics at Manchester Metropolitan University spoke about the unequal benefits of globalisation. You can view the slides here.
Robert Dixon, owner and founder of the Stockport-based company joineryworkshop.com, discussed potential for targeting support through the tax system to assist growth entrepreneurs and release the financial ‘blockage’ holding them back. You can view the slides here.
In the second session, SMEs and the UK’s Brexit response strategy, Dimitrios Syrrakos, Manchester Metropolitan University spoke about trade and exchange rate arrangements between the UK and the EU/Eurozone, and the importance of the manufacturing sector for the UK economy. You can view the slides here.
Alex Davies, research analyst from Manchester Chamber of Commerce, reflected that we aren't asking the right questions and many issues, especially related to the customs union and the single market, are typically oversimplified. You can view the slides here.
Presentations were followed by lively discussion. Key messages covered were:
Small business owners believe there will certainly be winners and losers among SMEs but who they are is not yet clear
In Greater Manchester, you can't think about Brexit without also considering the city/regional devolution agenda
The idea of using devolved powers to grow businesses using the tax system was hotly debated and attracted both skepticism and enthusiasm
Devolution (and Brexit) might provide an opportunity for more focus on communities, place, local ownership and SMEs, not just broadly defined economic growth
UK SMEs in a Changing Europe, Westminster Hall, London - November 2017
This event was sponsored by Lucy Powell MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Greater Manchester. The occasion was timely as the commons were voting on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that week. The format consisted of three keynote presentations followed by a policy panel with four business leaders. Presenters were from academia and practice.
Employment practices and recruitment, Carol Atkinson, Professor of Human Resources Management, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School
Resilient leaders and organisations – perspectives from the arts and cultural sector, Evelyn Wilson, Director of The Culture Capital Exchange
Globalisation, Brexit and Devolution - Winners and Losers, Kevin Albertson, Professor of Economics, Manchester Metropolitan University
The Small and Medium Enterprise Policy Panel was chaired by Dr Chris O’Leary, Policy Research and Evaluation Unit, Manchester Metropolitan. Panel members were:
Liz Clarke, Director and founder of BikeRight! – the UK's largest cycle training company
Hannah Johnson, Director of Carter Corson Business Psychologists, working with organisations of many kinds including government, finance, manufacturing and healthcare.
Abigail Phillips, Managing Director of The Cake Nest, a family business selling on-line personalised food gifts
Stephen Barnett, Chief Executive of the Euclid Network, a non-profit company working with members and partners in the social economy across Europe
Priorities and policy asks that emerged from the discussion included free movement, infrastructure, public sector commissioning, and consumer confidence. SMEs involved in contracts with the public sector are interested in the future of commissioning practices and fearful of possible further constraints on public spending. Those in consumer markets are concerned about reassurance to people that they can spend money. An issue of particular import to social and membership organizations such as EUCLID (which is also an SME) is the future of trans national learning and participation (or not) of the UK after Brexit in EU programmes such as Horizon 2020, which funds SMEs as well and research institutions. Trade is important but commentators and politicians are obsessed with trade, it was observed, to the detriment of thinking about other implications of Brexit. These include learning opportunities, innovation and openness to collaboration, all of which are of great importance to many SMEs.