Author – Craig Carey-Clinch, SWBC Board Member, Managing Director of Rowan Public Affairs Ltd and a member of the FSB’s England Policy Unit.

Public Affairs; staking a claim for the South West

Politics. That one word conjures up all sorts of images in people’s mind and not always the most savoury ones. Politics, or more specifically, the practice of public affairs lobbying, often generates headlines for all the wrong reasons as witnessed by various lobbying scandals over years. But influencing the public policy agenda has always been an important part of public life, both for business and social reasons on all manner of issues ranging from the environment, to business policy, to tax law to roads policy to how often the bins are emptied.

Lobbying and its related activities (advocacy, public affairs) are all about either trying to change politics or stopping it from changing. Far from subverting democracy, lobbying enables it to function effectively. There are around 66 million people in the UK and 650 MPs of which 55 can be described as representing South West seats. If each of those MPs spent only 5 minutes talking to each member of the public and every business, it would take them each around 4 and half years to speak to their share of the populace after which they’d be back on the stump trying to get re-elected. Not a fantastically productive use of their time. What lobbying does is to distil key issues and present them in a clear and coherent way to people who need to make important decisions about that issue. It also seeks to build support for positions and, yes, seeks to influence public debate to do this. The fact that lobbyists are generally quite good at it would obviously lead to concerns that representatives of business are subverting democracy. But this is to ignore the myriad different organisations that employ lobbyists or have people working in the area. Charities, trade unions, member clubs, government agencies and more all employ lobbyists or engage in lobbying activities.

Almost all major public policy areas relating to business also affects us in the South West. The question is whether business in our region gets a fair slice of the pie in a positive way when it comes to major decisions of Government. It should do, given that the EU’s ‘EuroStat’ website noted that the in 2017 regional GDP amounted to €167.8 billion – approximately 7.1% of the UK total. EuroStat also noted that businesses in the north and east of the region more heavily influenced by the competitive pressures of the South East and West Midlands than the southern counties.

With the country reopening after the long series of Covid-19 lockdowns, attention is turning to the Government’s longer term plans for the UK, which are not just aimed at Covid recovery, but also at agendas such a ‘levelling up’. Other core priorities can be defined as decarbonisation, efficiency, technology and innovation, plus strengthening the Union. We have learned that every department of state has been asked to draw up plans which will develop delivery of these priorities within each departmental area. It seems clear that for these priorities the South West will need a clear and strategic approach from business when staking its claim on the policy making agenda in these areas in Westminster and ensuring that the South West features in the minds of Government. This is not about simply talking to MPs and Ministers, it is about developing further relationships in Whitehall. Plus also demonstrating where the South West has an edge in several areas, not least new technologies and the environment.

This is where the South West Business Council has a clear role to play, where possible also in partnership with other business groups where interest align. The partnership element on issues of common concern is important, as when it comes to public affairs, it’s often the case that if government officials hear conflicting voices on issues, they’ll chose of default of doing what they feel is best, given that ‘the lobby’ can’t agree on its message. It’s vital that this key point about public affairs is not forgotten.

Although public affairs work is most often associated with businesses operating in the ‘Westminster Village’, several operate country-wide and we are fortunate that several are based in the South West. This gives individual businesses access to expert support and advice on policy matters that affect them individually. But the key point with any public affairs issue is to provide both constituency and voice to strengthen the case for change (or no change) that is being made. This is where business groupings such as the SWBC provide great value to their members.