Neil MacDonald, who is the chairman of the Sheffield City Region Business Growth board, said there was evidence the uncertainty over Brexit was leading to stockpiling and delayed investment decisions.
Mr MacDonald made the comments after joining an expert panel at the Sheffield City Region Quarterly Economic Review breakfast event, which focused on the potential consequences of Brexit.
The event, which was held at the New York Stadium in Rotherham, heard that there had been a “wavering” of business confidence amid the uncertainty over Brexit during the fourth quarter of 2018. The study concluded that “these remain challenging times for businesses”.
The study found that over the last three months, sales balances, while remaining positive overall, had declined for both the manufacturing and services sectors compared with the previous quarter.
The fall in confidence was particularly pronounced among manufacturers, the economic review said. During the panel discussion, Jayne Mezulis, a consultant specialising in export and important consultancy services, recommended that businesses prepare for the worst case scenario over Brexit. The event also heard concerns from the 130-strong audience about the potential impact of the loss of EU funding on South Yorkshire and the fate of the automotive sector after Brexit.
Speaking afterwards, Mr MacDonald, who holds a number of non-executive directorships, said: “It’s the lack of certainty (over Brexit) that is causing the problem.
“We can talk about getting prepared, but we still don’t know what we’re getting prepared for. We’re two and a half years down the line, and arguably we are no further forward from the day we knew the result of the referendum.
“That’s the concern businesses have got, what they need more than anything is certainty.”
Mr MacDonald said business people were worried about the consequences of a no deal Brexit.
He added: “Our region is potentially more exposed (than other regions). We’re heavy exporters to the EU and we’ve got a focus on manufacturing. So the potential risk is greater for us from a no deal Brexit.”
Many business leaders were unhappy about the way politicians were handling plans for Brexit, he said.
Mr MacDonald added: “There’s a resilience here, people will get on with it. People are fed up with the politicians. They’ve gone down to Westminster and they’re not in the real world anymore.”
He said he could understand why manufacturers with links to the automotive sector were feeling downbeat.
He added: “We talked today specifically on automotive.. the sector is suffering headwinds anyway and the supply chain there is arguably more complex than most of the others. “
He said the local enterprise partnership was helping local firms to plan for Brexit.
He said: “We’ve talked about the things you can put in place. You can put warehousing in place, you can put extra stock in place. Other than that, what can we do? “
Mr MacDonald added: “We’ve seen reduced investment and decisions being put back and that’s not good for the long term.”
He said Mrs May was in a difficult position as she attempts to secure a Brexit deal.
He added: “I suppose I can see it (Britain leaving the EU) getting kicked down the road a little bit, but there’s only a point in kicking it down the road if there’s a plan that can actually resolve that. I struggle to see a consensus for anything other than not a ‘no deal’.It’s like they go down there into that Westminster bubble and forget what people voted for and what people want.”
Business leaders at the event, which also included a delegation from Barnsley College, watched a presentation from Dr David Littlewood, from Sheffield University Management School about the conclusions of the quarterly survey.
The keynote speaker at the breakfast event was Jenny Lawson, the manager of Enterprise Europe Network. She suggested that there could be more competition for skilled and semi-skilled workers if fewer EU nationals come to work in the UK after Brexit.
William Beckett, the chairman of the International Trade Forum also joined the panel discussion to provide insights into what Brexit could mean for the UK’s trading relationships.
The event was chaired by Greg Wright, The Yorkshire Post’s Deputy Business Editor. It was organised by the city region’s four chambers of commerce.