General Election 2017: Why Consumers Must Be At The Heart Of The Journey Ahead

09/05/2017 12:32 BST | Updated 09/05/2017 12:32 BST

In the coming years, the UK's pioneering spirit will come to the fore. A new place in the world, new technologies and new ways of working. The scale of the change is almost incomprehensible and of course, it starts with Brexit. I believe that the key to securing the fairest settlement is to put consumers at the heart of the negotiations. Putting consumers first will be the best foundation for a forward-looking, responsible and vibrant economy in the future.

I also believe that the retail industry will be at the epicentre of the changes ahead - from trade through to skills and employment. Retail is the leading example of how the UK is driving productivity with better jobs, innovation and investment.

So the starting point for the next Government is to ensure that consumers are protected from the cost of unwanted new tariffs. The BRC's recent work on UK trade imports clearly spells out the cost to consumer food bills of leaving the EU without a deal and falling back on WTO rules. Beverages, fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are the UK's biggest imports from the EU and without continuation of tariff-free trade, tariffs could be as high as 46 per cent for cheese or 21 per cent for tomatoes.

More challenges lie ahead. Keeping prices low for consumers means the Government will have to negotiate frictionless customs arrangements. Our supply chain will rely on providing certainty for EU colleagues working in the UK. We must also ensure the continuity of existing EU legislation as it transfers to the UK and resist the desire to give into special interest pleading which will only be a drag on progress.

Yet the challenges we face as we negotiate our future relationship with Europe also make it essential for policy makers to understand the broader economic conditions that retail must operate in, now and beyond Brexit.

Retail is undergoing rapid technological change, providing a critical test bed for emergent digital technologies and industries such as big data analytics, robotics and virtual or augmented reality. As a result, in recent years retail has been a driver of the UK's productivity growth, consistently outperforming the national average and in the process creating thousands of new high tech jobs.

The difficult truth Government faces is the sheer size of upward cost pressures that make it increasingly impossible for retailers maintain the pace of technological change. The combined impact of rising business rates, the National Living Wage, the Apprenticeship Levy and the weak pound means that capital to invest is becoming increasingly scarce. At the same time, many of the shops at the heart of our communities, which often provide valuable employment in economically vulnerable areas, are forced to close as substantial increases in property taxes and labour costs make business non-viable.

Understanding the scale of the journey ahead and its likely impact on communities retail serves is the most important challenge for policy-makers and our industry. Amid lightning change, policies that support a fair Brexit for consumers and a pioneering, responsible and vibrant economy with consumers at its heart are what we urgently needed now.