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Guest speakers David Patterson, Michael Shawyer, Paul Maddison, Ian Piper and Les Durrant with Rosemary Wells head of political and coporate engagement at Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce

Zombies, cartels and superpowers dominate Chamber event

Zombies, cartels and the rise of a new superpower: not the plot of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but some highlights from the Swindon Business Leaders Forum.

The Swindon Chamber of Commerce event, which was held at Alexandra House in Wroughton last Friday, promised managers from some of the town´s largest employers bags of local, legal and financial intelligence.

Kicking off proceedings, Paul Maddison of HSBC bank reminded delegates of the real risk of a triple dip recession. “We´re not in a good space in the UK,” he said.

The answer, he reckoned, was to get exporting, but not to the struggling economies of Europe, where 45 percent of our export business is done, or even to the US, which accounts for 17 percent of our foreign trade.

“Growth is forecast for the emerging BRIC economies – Brazil, India, China, Russia. We should be thinking about those markets.”

Michael Shawyer of MonahansWhile the banker saw opportunities in the East, Michael Shawyer of Monahans saw zombies on the horizon: 160,000 of them.

Zombies, he explained, are indebted companies that are able to repay the interest on their debts, but not reduce their debts.

The accountant explained that the banks and HMRC were “going softly on companies in trouble” to stop firms slipping into administration.

“We can still get deals from HMRC, and creditors are taking a realistic view, but a lot of companies are just clinging on,” he warned.

However, Swindon was far from swarming with zombies, and the county´s record for business survival is pretty good, said the accountant. Wiltshire is ranked 10th out of 36 counties for business survival, while 62 percent of new businesses in the county make it through their first three years.

For David Patterson, a partner at Thrings, a legal threat to businesses is new legislation concerning anti-competitive pricing.

Business leaders were warned not to disclose prices, bids or contracts with others in their industry, for fear of falling foul of anti-cartel legislation like The Competition Act.

He said that the Office of fair Trading had recently fined six recruitment companies a total of £39 million for price fixing, and warned delegates: “If you are a member of a trade organisation, ensure you know what´s permitted under competition laws.

“You can be fined individually or face imprisonment for being involved in a cartel,” he said.

Ian Piper of Forward SwindonIan Piper, of Forward Swindon, outlined the work of the organisation in “putting Swindon on the map,” by attracting inward investment to the town and looking after the businesses already here.

He explained that an initiative to encourage Swindon Borough Council managers to visit the top 100 businesses in the town had fostered a greater understanding between local government and the business world, and in some cases brought down barriers to growth, especially in the planning arena.

Mr Piper was also keen to talk about regeneration, reminding delegates that the Planning Swindon Together document, as master plan for the area with cross-party support, goes before the borough council next week (March 20).

Meanwhile, he was keen to talk up successes like the Union Square development – one of the biggest commercial development projects in the UK – which will transform the town centre and accommodate 3,000 new jobs.

And he welcomed the development of Regent Circus, the former college site. “It was a symbol of lack of progress,” he said. “I sensed a lot of optimism when that building came down.” A new cinema and restaurants will soon take its place.

Les DurrantAnother important document was the topic of the final presentation by planning expert Les Durrant, author of the business representation to the Swindon Borough Local Development Framework by Swindon Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with GWE Business West, Wessex Chambers, the FSB and the CBI.

The planning consultant said the council´s 2011 core strategy had been a concern to the business community, as it was based on a low growth scenario.

The Local Development Framework, which will guide planning policy until 2026, was broadly welcomed by the business community, said Mr Durrant, but there were still reservations, including concerns over housing levels which will fuel economic growth, and the underestimation of employment land requirement.

One of the biggest problems was a lack of co-operation between Swindon Borough Council and Wiltshire Council. “The best opportunities for development lie to the west, along the M4 and beyond Swindon Borough,” said Mr Durrant. “These cross-boundary issues will not go away.”

The next Swindon Chamber of Commerce event is the business breakfast on Thursday, April 11 at the County Ground, when Jane Bromley of Strategenic Ltd will be talking about mastering the techniques to attract and retain a flock of customers.

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