Jan 5, 2020

Scrap HS2, speed up the internet and look after the left behind

written by Lisa Eason

So what does 2020 hold for investors and entrepreneurs? The general election has made an enormous difference to the country’s economic prospects. The risks of nationalisation, excessive public spending and borrowing, punishing tax rises and suffocating regulations have all receded because Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have been resoundingly beaten. Socialism has been banished for at least five years. Most importantly, the public have voted in favour of markets, enterprise, wealth creation, trade, innovation and investment. Thanks to Boris Johnson’s decisive victory, property rights will be respected, and the UK is an attractive place to do business once more.

Of course, there is still Brexit to navigate, but the uncertainty will steadily diminish. Strong leadership, a powerful majority and an aligned governing party are likely to mean more straightforward negotiations with the EU.

Which are the interesting sectors in a Boris boom? One obvious beneficiary should be construction, house-building in particular. If the Tories are to have any hope of winning over millennials, they must stimulate more home-building. This will require changes to planning law, the main barrier to development. Britain needs to construct at least 300,000 homes a year to meet demand, yet currently, we barely manage two-thirds of that. Suppliers to the trade, such as building materials manufacturers, should do well if the government can remove the shackles that inhibit building.

Another possible winner in the coming years is companies involved in infrastructure such as roads, ports and rail. I hope Boris scraps HS2, which is likely to cost £100bn and prove a waste of taxpayer money. By the time it is finished the rail line will be out of date. Instead, the funds should be applied to smaller projects, largely across the Midlands and the north of England. Local initiatives happen much quicker and deliver more rapid, certain paybacks. Every opportunity should be taken to encourage regeneration in left-behind towns and cities, and on forgotten high streets. Developers will profit from a government determined to boost deprived areas with intelligent tax breaks and planning support.

Communications are key to growth, and digital connections will be paramount in the new decade. While Labour’s idea to nationalise broadband was foolish, the government should boost high-speed internet everywhere, with strategic subsidies where essential. If the provinces have better online connectivity, they will be better placed to compete. The extraordinary success of Bet365 in Stoke shows what can happen even in the poorest regions if just one company makes it big.

Education is another focus for the new government. Suppliers to schools can expect to see more business, whether they are software vendors, equipment providers, recruiters, publishers or contractors. Austerity in the public sector is over, and the government will want to make an impact to cement its new electoral base. There is likely to be more emphasis on technical and vocational training and reform of the apprenticeship levy, which has clearly not worked.

Media could face reform. Channel 4 has run its course as a public corporation. Its behaviour during the election was self-destructive, and its news presenters’ partisan abuse of politicians has brought it into disrepute. As an ex-chairman, I have a sentimental attachment to the organisation, but Britain does not need two state-owned public service broadcasters in an era of vast viewing choice. It should be sold off, under a much looser remit, and allowed to flourish as a private sector operation rather than sliding into irrelevance.

The NHS is to receive significant additional funds, and this should help its various private sector partners. From catering to construction, security to staffing, training to drugs, equipment to communications, the NHS uses a vast array of suppliers. Ageing populations with more chronic diseases need ever more care, and clever methods of delivery so that society can afford the treatments. Entrepreneurs who devise more efficient and cost-effective ways to prevent and cure illnesses will prosper.

With employment high, interest rates low, a pro-business government and greater political certainty than at any time in the past three years, Britain looks set to enjoy a period of progress, and entrepreneurs should feel optimistic about the opportunities ahead.