The UK government’s new and much-anticipated export strategy sets out its ambition to increase exports as a proportion of GDP and to produce “more tailored support” to UK companies.
Key elements of this support will be peer-to-peer learning to encourage more businesses to export; the development of the department for international trade (DIT)’s website into a “single digital platform” for practical advice and assistance on exporting; and the creation of an online tool to enable UK businesses to easily connect to overseas buyers, markets and other UK exporters.
Response to the new strategy – which was launched today by international trade secretary Liam Fox – has been mixed.
The British Exporters Association (BExA) says it is “extremely encouraged” by the new plan and welcomes the “challenging growth targets” that have been set.
BExA co-chair Marcus Dolman calls the government’s export target of 35% of GDP “ambitious but achievable”.
In 2017, this number was 30%, amounting to £620bn-worth of goods and services exported by British companies.
It’s the first time the government has used this measure to quantify its exports. “It’s preferable to a nominal value target as it more accurately reflects changes in the UK’s underlying export performance,” a DIT spokesperson tells GTR. No time frame on the target was provided.
According to DIT estimates, as many as 400,000 businesses believe they could export but don’t – and these form the focus of the new strategy. Demand for British expertise and goods overseas, meanwhile, is growing.
The strategy’s business-led approach –in which the government intends to work closely with the private sector to drive exports – has been hailed by some market players as crucial.
Speaking at the launch, Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said that the right day-to-day support for exporters is “as important as efforts to negotiate new trade deals”.
“Trusted, face-to-face support is key to export success. When firms get the information and connections they need to develop new markets and find new customers – that is when we see confidence, investment and results,” he explained.
Others are less encouraged by this approach. One source tells GTR that the new strategy is a sign that the government has acknowledged that its lack of communication forms part of its shortcomings and is simply “passing the buck” on to UK companies themselves to engage in peer-to-peer learning.
The new strategy stipulates that there will be an “increased focus on amplifying the voice of existing exporters to inspire other businesses and facilitating peer-to-peer learning”.
It does not outline how the government will incentivise companies to support their peers in this regard.
“It’s not going to work,” says GTR’s source, a former UK banker with close ties to the government, who prefers to remain unnamed. “Most UK companies are lethargic. Those that are proactive and have this knowledge know exactly how much energy, cost and time it’s taken to get hold of that information and keep it up to date. Often this knowledge is gleaned from having in-country capability. They’re not going to give that away for nothing.”
The DIT tells GTR that it will be creating a “community of new UK Export Champions” as one way of overcoming this hurdle. “Our consultations with businesses have concluded peer-to-peer is a more sensible way of engaging with business rather than dictation from government,” the spokesperson says.
The new strategy – which comes into play immediately and with no fixed deadline – lays the foundation for how the government plans to support businesses in the years ahead. The next phase will see the DIT work across government to review what further measures could help improve its export performance and meet the 35% goal. “We are considering next steps in terms of an implementation plan and its governance, including monitoring and tracking progress against each of the measures,” the spokesperson explains. “It’s a long-term aspiration.”