By Hugo Duncan, Daily Mail
This piece appeared as the Daily Mail’s City Interview on Thursday, October 4, 2012
John Cridland was not the obvious choice to be the ‘voice of business’ when he was appointed director general of the CBI in early 2011.
But less than two years into the job the mild-mannered 51-year-old is proving to be a popular and influential cheerleader for companies large and small.
No bad thing given the parlous state of the economy and the anti-business rhetoric being spouted by the unions, in Westminster and beyond.
Fresh from the Labour Party conference in Manchester — he will be in Birmingham with the Tories next week — Cridland says the public has concerns about business ‘for reasons I well understand’.
But he insists that it is Britain’s ‘forgotten army of entrepreneurs’ and firms with the potential for ‘gazelle-like growth’ that will drive the economic recovery.
"It’s the classic small and medium-sized business," explains Cridland from his office at Centre Point in Central London.
"I think it is the CBI’s job to champion these people.’ Education, he says, is ‘the most important long-term priority for Britain’ and ‘the next big priority for the CBI under my leadership'.
"But for now he is sticking to the economy. ‘The economy is bumping along the bottom. It is flat out there. But I don’t think we are in recession. I think the Government statistics are too negative."
Cridland, who looks and sounds like an accountant, is the first CBI insider to get the top job at the country’s most powerful corporate lobby group and is less wellknown than his immediate predecessors.
Again, this is no bad thing. He is not as toadying as Sir Richard Lambert, the proeuro ex-editor of the Financial Times and former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee.
Nor is he as bombastic as the combative Lord Jones of Birmingham. But he is an effective communicator all the same and business men and women have warmed to his more measured approach.
A CBI ‘lifer’ who joined as a policy advisor in 1982 straight after leaving Cambridge, the married father of two praises the Government’s efforts to put the nation’s finances back on an even keel after the boom and bust under Labour.
"The plan is securing low borrowing rates for small businesses in Britain, the plan is securing the credibility of our Government’s’ borrowing, the plan means we are not in the mess that Greece and other Mediterranean countries are in even though we have debt levels that are not that dissimilar," he says. "So we must stick to the plan. If we don’t stick to the plan we’d be in the same trouble some of our European cousins are in."
But while Cridland gives the Coalition eight out of ten for its work on the public finances, he gives a less generous six out of ten for the growth strategy.
"The plan on growth is right," he says. "It is right to try to double our exports to £1trillion in the next decade, it is right to focus on a “march of the makers” to get manufacturing back to a bigger slice of the economy, it is right to focus on infrastructure.
"Nothing is wrong with the plan — it is the execution of the plan that is the problem. It is the sluggish delivery. Government has got to get a bit more oomph into what it is doing."
He rattles through issues that need attention, from housing and transport to energy supply and superfast broadband.
Cridland is particularly exercised by the congested road network in Britain and how delays are costing the UK economy as much as £8bn a year.
The CBI will next week set out its vision for the future of our roads. Toll roads will feature heavily in the blueprint and Cridland argues tolling is ‘probably inevitable’ given the Government has run out money.
The CBI will also shine a light on vehicle excise duty, which instead of being used to maintain roads has become ‘just another form of taxation’ to boost the Treasury coffers.
He says: "Every day, firms up and down the country lose precious time and money as freight deliveries, commuters and business travellers get stuck in an increasingly saturated network." Cridland uses the A14 — which runs from the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, Britain’s largest container port, to the M1 and the M6 — as an example of Government failure.
"It is a major link road and a third of all our container traffic comes into Felixstowe," he says. "It binds the country together yet it is a dual carriageway which isn’t motorway standard.
"I persuaded Government to accept that the A14 needed widening and that should be at the top of the list and then the Department for Transport says construction will start in 2018.
"If it is important, why is it going to start in 2018? Do we want the A14 widened or do we not want the A14 widened?"
A fan of the Eagle comic behind science fiction hero Dan Dare, he enthusiastically invokes the spirit of Churchill and the ‘fabulous Olympic success story’ in his quest to reawaken the ‘can do spirit’ that has so successfully served Britain in the in past.
"We know what we need to do, but the delivery is really disappointing,’ he says. ‘There just doesn’t seem to be the momentum. Churchill used to put on his memos when he was sat in Downing Street during the war: “Action this day.” There just isn’t action this day. The whole thing is too sluggish.’
It is a message he will be looking to drive home at the Tory Party conference next week.
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