Fears over new relationship with EU cloud outlook for manufacturers

Posted on 12 Jan 2021 by Tom Lane

Fears over the impact of the UK’s new trading relationship with the EU and the attractiveness of the UK for both investment and talent are clouding the outlook for manufacturers as they enter 2021, according to a major survey published by Make UK and PwC.

However, despite this, more companies believe the opportunities outweigh the risks for their businesses given significant investments in boosting productivity and agility, while manufacturers are also more confident about the prospects for their own companies than they are for either the global or UK economies.

The 2021 Make UK/PwC Executive survey shows that a third of companies believe the investment prospects for UK businesses will decrease having left the EU with just 18% of companies believing they will increase. In addition, just over a quarter of companies (26%) believe exports to the EU will fall with just 16% believing they will increase.

Furthermore, a third also believe the UK’s ability to attract international talent will decrease with just 11% believing the UK will be a more attractive destination outside the EU. According to Make UK this potentially puts at risk the ambition of the Government’s new immigration system which is specifically designed to encourage the best talent to come to the UK.

The survey also shows that customs delays are seen as the biggest risk to companies (47%) while concerns over national and local lockdowns were the second biggest risk (46%). Furthermore, increased costs of regulation is reported as the biggest risk by just under forty per cent (39%) while over one in 10 companies (14%) also believe a relocation of a major customer out of the UK is their biggest risk.

Commenting, Make UK Chief Executive, Stephen Phipson, said: “The transition to new trading arrangements with the EU was always going to be the biggest challenge facing manufacturers this year and the fact we have an agreement in place doesn’t alter that. However, just as the sector rose to the challenge of aiding the national effort at the start of the pandemic, it is clearly set to do so again as we re-build the economy and take advantage of the opportunities from digital technologies.

“To ensure we cement the role of industry in the future economy we need to see a strategic vision from Government for the whole economy across the UK. This must go way beyond short term tinkering and involve an industrial strategy that takes at least a decade long horizon with the whole of Government putting its shoulder to the wheel to deliver it.”

Cara Haffey, PwC UK’s manufacturing and automotive leader, commented: “The EU trade deal, taken alongside the positive progress with both COVID-19 vaccines, will give business leaders the confidence to start planning for the future with greater clarity.

UK's manufacturers are set to benefit from a boom in overseas demand in 2018 - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
 image courtesy of Depositphotos.

“While the need to protect supply chains and boost export products has hit the headlines, the services and maintenance trade that supports this has barely been touched upon.  With as many as four in five UK firms either developing or already delivering an enhanced service offering to their clients, it’s crucial businesses are able to swiftly respond to our new relationship with the EU, especially relating to people movement, if they are to remain competitive in an increasingly customer focused global stage.

“I found it heartening to see that so many respondents are focusing on strengthening business resilience by investing in their people and diversifying their trade models in 2021. UK manufacturers are resilient by nature and, with the right investor and government support, their agility and drive will enable them to build new trade networks and embrace the clean, green digital revolution, ensuring the UK remains a go-to destination for many more years to come.”

Despite the concerns over the new trading relationship with the EU and the attractiveness of the UK almost 48% of companies see a significant or moderate improvement for manufacturing in 2021.

This is in contrast to how they see the prospects for the UK economy where 56% see a deterioration, while 46% are more negative about the prospects for the global economy.

Furthermore, this positive outlook was echoed at individual company level with more than half (51%) believing the opportunities outweigh the risks to their businesses compared with 27% who believe the risks are greater. As a result of this, after the falls in 2020 in response to the pandemic, recruitment is forecast to pick up – with 44% of companies expected to increase employee numbers compared to 25% who are planning to reduce headcount.

The survey also provides encouraging indicators on the strategies manufacturers are adopting to build resilience and agility into their business by investing in people, new products, markets and technologies.

British manufacturers said the govt should drop the 'max fac' - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
 image courtesy of Depositphotos.

While controlling costs remains the biggest priority for companies, 57% of manufacturers are investing in new product development with a similar number also planning capital investment, both of which encompassing a significant commitment to digital technologies. Encouragingly, a quarter of companies are looking to re-shore overseas activities while 25% are looking to identify new or additional suppliers in the UK as a high priority.

People also feature highly on company strategies with 44% committed to training and 37% investing in Apprenticeships despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic. As a result of these investments 54% of companies are expecting to see an increase in their productivity in 2021.

Despite the impending EU exit suppressing European export expectations for next year, manufacturers are already demonstrating the agility required to navigate the uncertain trade environment by proactively seeking out novel export opportunities in fresh markets, looking to diversify their trade income streams and build in further resilience to future crises.

Almost a third of companies (30%) are planning to enter new markets in 2021. This will see the UK’s trade patterns shift for while they are predicting exports to the EU will fall, almost 40% of companies are looking to expand sales in to non-EU markets with increases to Asia (27%) and the United States (28%) the biggest targets.

The survey of 206 companies was conducted between 11 and 30 November 2020.