02 November 2018 by David Smith, FIA, FIRESA Secretary

The comedian Stewart Lee said ‘oh I can’t sleep…you self-medicate with alcohol and knock yourself out – but obviously, that’s not a long-term strategy.’ But perhaps it is because as Frank Sinatra opined, ‘I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.’

So what is a strategy for sleeplessness, maybe it’s having a good supply of strategy documents to read at bed-time. But of course, a strategic vision is vital for all organisations, including governments, as is for it to be the right strategy, capable of the necessary flexibility and that most essential ingredient, the means to enact it.

Back in his 2012 budget, then Chancellor George Osborne pledged to double UK exports to £1 tn by 2020. With no substantive strategy in place to achieve this target, this failed spectacularly and was quietly dropped along with the aim of eliminating the budget deficit by the same date. Are we anywhere near the £1 tn export target………er no, the annual export figures for the year to June 2018 show us at £621 bn and although we observe an upward trend, there are few serious economic commentators that expect anything other than a negative effect of Brexit on our export capabilities.

This takes us to the publication in August of HM Government’s Export Strategy which has the headline of ‘a new national ambition to transform our export performance, raising exports as a proportion of GDP from 30% to 35%.’ The direct quote is important, it is purely an ambition and is now linked not to absolute export values but a percentage of GDP, hence it is subject to more than export performance alone. There is another stark feature notable by its absence, there is no timescale to achieve this, a strategy outcome that for that reason alone would fail to pass muster in a window cleaning business let alone a national government. That link to GDP is worrying also; if exports stay the same but our GDP goes down, cigars all round as exports edge closer to their target!

The document itself states the UK’s export challenge and the role of government in providing finance, connections, information and encouragement through a range of measures, focusing on a business-led approach and doing only what government can do to generate the largest or most strategic return. Its focus on SMEs is encouraging although the role of trade associations in representing entire sectors is disappointingly underplayed.

Much of its content builds on existing initiatives such as the GREAT campaign and UK Export Finance although there are some interesting new features to their approach including peer-to-peer learning and sharing of best practice. In some other areas, the offer seems less assured. For example, it refers to the need to ‘incentivise businesses to export’ but states that ‘celebrating excellence and innovation in trade and investment’ is the means to do so which clearly it isn’t. There is also the spectre as we’ve seen above of government doing what it can and not what it perceives it cannot and the prioritisation of markets and sectors offering the greatest returns. The danger here is that government perpetuates its existing support mechanisms that rely on government-to-government contacts and which benefits sectors such as defence and homeland security over a host of other more end-user oriented sectors.    

The Strategy has been generally welcomed by organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce and the British Exporters Association. It’s the case, however, that factors such as the escalating trade war between the USA and China and, of course, Brexit may undermine the export push from the UK, the latter affecting not only trade with our single biggest export destination collectively but also disrupting the supply chains on which our manufacturers rely.

The current government Export Strategy is only part of the story. DIT DSO, of which fire is a part, is to produce its own Defence, Security and Fire Strategy which effectively enacts the overall government strategy from a DSO perspective. The FIA is involved in this process through contributing views to a DSO export survey and, very importantly, participating in a series of workshops that are enabling our members to speak directly on the issues that face them as active exporters. Also of relevance is our work as a key partner within the Joint International Fire Board which is producing its own Strategy specific to the fire sector.           

Needless to say, a concerted approach requires all of these strategies to point in the same direction and to offer practical means of growing what we often term UK plc and the fire safety industry’s part in that. There may be some sleepless nights ahead in achieving this but there’s always the tried and trusted remedies…warm milk, Ovaltine [does that still exist, yes it does, if only to ruin warm milk], and herbal tea although maybe Stewart Lee’s approach is the one to go for.