Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West, said for the UK to have £1tn in value by 2020 exports would need to achieve double-digit growth every year.
This, he acknowledged, was “really quite challenging”.
Sharma called for more support for SMEs wanting to export and work to identify which markets and sectors would provide the best opportunities and results.
On these issues “we have some way to go,” he recognised, and said the Government’s new productivity plan was aiming to “get the basics right”.
Despite this, Mr Sharma remained optimistic about Britain’s export potential thanks to global demographics. As other countries transitioned to looking for service products, such as insurance, Britain’s exports would soar, he explained.
David Sleath, chief executive of Segro, pointed to two examples of British companies that exported very successfully - Brompton and Hanovia. The factors he attributed to their great success were their globally attractive products, access to local skills and infrastructure, and the fact that they were strategically based close to the UK’s hub airport, Heathrow.
With over a quarter of the UK’s exports going through Heathrow Airport, enabling Heathrow to expand was the “biggest single thing the Government can do now” to encourage UK exports, asserted Mr Sleath.
Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, agreed that the UK had to tackle the growth markets in the world, but encouraged a focus on growing economies too. The vast majority of these markets were long-haul flights away, he stated.
He cautioned that many key destinations that were the home of growing markets were not yet accessible to the UK and “something needs to change” if the UK was to maintain control of its supply chain.
“To win the race for growth, we not only need to be connected to the rest of the world, we need to be better connected than our competitors in France and Germany,” declared Mr Holland-Kaye.
This need to increase trade in new markets was echoed by the Telegraph’s Liam Halligan, who said that despite Britain’s unmatched trading heritage, its exporting sector was now “woefully underperforming”.
Mr Halligan said the current “west-to-east direction of travel” was fruitless. Emphasising a need to focus on the crucial BRICS countries, he said:
“We need to trade more with the mass markets of tomorrow, not just today.”
He also called for the diversity and relationships across the commonwealth to be more effectively utilised.
After a question from London First’s chief executive Baroness Jo Valentine on whether the Government would be making a decision on airport expansion before the end of the year, Sharma said he could not speak for the Government but personally hoped a decision would be made soon.
On the prospect of a Brexit, Mr Sharma wasn’t convinced that a massive change in the exports market would take place overnight if Britain left the European Union. Other countries from outside the EU have successfully negotiated with Europe over trade agreements, so “why couldn’t we?” he asked.
Mr Holland-Kaye believed that there was merit to be found in Britain working with others, rather than as an isolated island nation, and Mr Sleath agreed that Britain’s ability to negotiate favourable agreements would potentially be weakened if it was outside the EU.
“We are in competition here… and we are at risk of falling behind,” said Holland-Kaye, adding that, “we need to make the decisions in our generation to secure the future for the next.”
Whilst Mr Holland-Kaye said Heathrow would be responding fully to the Davies Commission in due course, he was confident that there were “no show-stoppers” in the recommendations.
He did not believe airport expansion would play a major part in the upcoming London mayoral election, not least because there was no real difference between Zac Goldsmith’s and Sadiq Khan’s positions.
“We have to do the right thing for London”, he said, whilst maintaining the city’s status as a truly global – and globally connected – city.
Asked whether Andrew Adonis had been a good choice for the Chancellor’s new National Infrastructure Commission, the panel all agreed that he was a serious and respected figure, with a record of holding senior figures to account.