Business leaders blame red tape for damaging UK competitiveness

UK manufacturers vented their frustration this week over what they see as the continuing lack of support from the government in tackling red tape both in the UK and in Brussels.Business leaders at the CBI conference in Birmingham on Monday told delegates there was no level playing field across Europe, and that the continuing failure to standardise regulations across all EU states was holding back competitiveness.

The debate was fuelled by a keynote address from European Commission president Romano Prodi, making his first speech in the UK since his appointment last year. Prodi said the only way to speed up the legislative process in Europe would be by moving to majority voting — which would spell the end of the current ‘veto’ format where just one dissenting state can hold up legislation.

‘In the UK you tend to think that this will reduce your ability to say ‘no’ to the things that you do not want,’ Prodi told the conference. ‘But it will also ease the path to making happen the things that you do want.’

Prodi said majority voting would become essential as the EU enlarged to include a total of 28 nations within the next 10 years. And he said the internal decision-making mechanisms within Brussels would be streamlined.

Prodi’s comments provided a backdrop for a succession of business leaders who were quick to point out the current inconsistencies in EU regulations.

Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman and chief executive of construction machinery group JCB, recounted a catalogue of EU bureaucracy he claimed was hindering exports.

He said attempts to create a single market for construction equipment within Europe had been blocked by the myriad regulations that continued to apply in different EU states.

Off-road equipment travelling on highways was subjected to four different speed limits in four different countries, he said. And there was also no common specification for how vehicle brakes should perform across the EU. ‘All this is costing us an extra £1,500 per machine to make our vehicles fully compliant in Europe, he said. ‘That’s £20m a year.’Bamford said he voted for the ‘yes’ campaign in 1975 to confirm UK membership of the European Community. ‘But in my view, governments of all persuasions have deceived us,’ he said.

Peter Blackburn, chairman of Nestlé, and president of the Food and Drink Federation, said Whitehall civil servants were part of the EU red tape problem. ‘The recent EU proposal on abattoirs ran to 12 pages in Brussels, was seven pages by the time the French had dealt with it, but was over 90 pages once it had been through Whitehall.’

Blackburn warned that while inward investors were quick to move into the UK 10 years ago, the risk was that increasing costs, currency issues and regulation would make Britain less attractive.

Other speakers pointed to the restrictive planning regime of UK local authorities that was leading to many inward investments moving elsewhere.

One delegate asked: ‘How is it that the debate is still going on over Terminal Five at Heathrow, while during that same time Charles de Gaulle (in Paris) and Schipol (in Amsterdam) have both completed the construction of additional terminals?’

Stephen Byers, secretary of state for trade and industry, said much of the UK planning system still had its roots ‘in a bygone era’ and would need to be updated.

‘Even nine months or 12 months is too long to have to wait. Local people’s views have to be taken into account, but we need faster decisions,’ he said.