What is so encouraging is that Business in the Community is at the heart of so many of the practical initiatives to address these crucial issues: from supporting Business Classes in the most challenging schools, mentoring young Muslims through my Mosaic initiative, supporting The Countryside Fund, and of course the Mayday initiative and, more recently, START, which I am delighted will now be developed from the hub of Business in the Community.

Prime Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, it really is very good of you to have taken the trouble, given the terrible weather we have been experiencing, to join us on this occasion which, I find hard to believe, is my 25th Business in the Community AGM.

It was a quarter of a Century ago that I chaired my first board meeting, at Lloyd’s Bank in the City of London, and it really is amazing to think how far we have come in that time. Although bits of your ageing President keep dropping off in various parts of the country and the world, I am very pleased to see that Business in the Community goes from strength to strength!

And, if I may, I do just want to say a very particular word of thanks to the Prime Minister for being here today. His schedule over these last few days, dashing backwards and forwards between Switzerland and goodness knows where else, has been astonishing – and I do have a little, tiny bit of inside information from my eldest son on just how incredibly busy he has been! Given the news we have just received, it was certainly no lack of effort on the part of himself and others in the 2018 team that we were sadly unsuccessful, but the amount of dedication was extraordinary.

As I look around me today, I can hardly believe from what small acorns this movement grew. And I can tell you they were very small indeed at the start! Only a very few people really wanted to focus on the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility, it was the One Per Cent Club if you remember, it was them who came along and asked me to get involved. I was very flattered to be asked, but I well remember how so many Business in the Community projects were launched in those early days on little more than a wing and a prayer! There were only had a handful of companies who really saw the point, and getting the attention of those who really mattered was a far from easy challenge I can tell you.

I certainly never imagined, then, that attitudes could have changed so much. The way businesses behave, not just in their communities, but in the market place, or towards the environment – indeed, towards their own staff in the workplace – matter so much more today, particularly of course to younger employees, which is what I hear from so many of you. In fact, as I may have said to some of you before, I find myself now being lectured by people of my Godchildren’s age about Corporate Social Responsibility – you have to get used to that as you get older I suppose! But it is so important to younger employees that companies compete these days to secure that all-important “Big Tick,” or to achieve the Community Mark, or secure their place on the Corporate Responsibility Index – and I am enormously proud that Business in the Community has played a part in this crucial transformation.

I was of course helped over the years by a pretty heroic team on the executive of BITC and I particularly want to thank the Chief Executives with whom I have worked: Stephen O’Brien, who originally came and made the offer I couldn’t refuse, the inimitable, unstoppable, indomitable and incredibly charitable Julia Cleverdon and more recently, the indefatigable Stephen Howard. I must express warmest gratitude for their remarkable service.

But, of course, our job is far from done.

Indeed in the present challenging times never has it been more vital for businesses, of all sizes, not only to create the jobs and find the markets we need, but also to scale up their local engagement in communities across the country. It strikes me that the crucial thing is to ensure we now use the knowledge we have acquired over the last quarter of a Century, rather than try and reinvent the wheel, dare I say, all over again. So, what exactly have we learned?

Well, 25 years ago, I said – and I quote – that: “helping to tackle economic and social issues is an essential part of far-sighted business practice.” Or, as I remember Marcus Sieff used to put it: “Prosperous high streets require prosperous back streets.” And in this room today are companies who have shown themselves to be such far-sighted and responsible businesses that they have focussed their engagement in the most disadvantaged communities and on the most difficult social issues. An outstanding example is Business Action on Homelessness, chaired by my National Ambassador, John Varley, which has just put its 2000th homeless client into work. And ladies and gentlemen, just think of that – 2,000 homeless people given a second chance to lead a rewarding and fulfilling life. Of course this is an astonishing achievement, and one that has required enormous energy and commitment.

But it shows just what is possible. I remember on one occasion visiting a homeless hostel, and finding a chap there who had been at the same school as I’d been at, Gordonstoun, in the far North of Scotland. It just shows how life can suddenly treat you a very bad hand. We need, ladies and gentlemen, more companies to join this campaign and so I was particularly delighted to see that your Leadership Survey reports that 79 per cent of business leaders feel they can do more to engage other businesses to increase their impact. So there is our first task. If each of you could bring another company into membership with BITC, just imagine the difference we could make.

Secondly, we now know that change rarely happens on the ground without the dynamism of key individuals. If you will forgive me for quoting, again, from my speech 25years ago, I said that: “On my numerous visits to inner-city areas, housing estates and homeless hostels, I have met outstanding people with the drive and imagination to get action moving. These social entrepreneurs deserve all the encouragement we can give.”

And since then, I have met many more of these remarkable community champions. I am thinking of people such as Dick Atkinson in Balsall Heath, or Tony McGann of the Eldonians in Liverpool, or Jane Brook in Cumbria, who started the Orton Farmers Market. More recently, I recall meeting two wonderful ladies, Fran and Amanda, whose energy had galvanised more than 15 local businesses to help them transform their youth centre in Burnley! Social entrepreneurs achieve so much, and I see it all the time, but what I have often found is that when they are partnered with a business – and especially with a senior person within that business – they can achieve so much more in terms of scale and the sustainability of their project and learning how to tackle all the different agencies and get through the red tape and so on. Often it is the very practical professional help to those running small charities which makes the whole difference to those social entrepreneurs on the front-line of our most deprived communities.

But it is not only social entrepreneurs who have the leadership skills and the great ideas. If there is one thing that has been crystal clear to me over all the years that I have been travelling around the country making, I suppose, an awful nuisance of myself as I tried to spur the business community to action, it is that business leaders, working together, can so often come up with real, practical solutions in a way which has eluded the rest of us.

I often think how glad I was that, in 2001, I asked the Education Leadership Team to see if they could do a proper evaluation of that rather good programme called, “Partners in Leadership,” which linked head teachers with business people. I wanted to make sure the programme really addressed the challenges that head teachers were facing! The results of that evaluation – carried out by McKinsey – produced the very practical, but highly ambitious plans of Teach First, of which I am now so delighted to be Patron. Next year it will be the largest graduate recruitment programme in the UK, encouraging outstanding graduates to teach in some of the most challenging schools, and widely supported by a genuine and highly successful private/ public partnership incubated by Business in the Community.

Another such example is my Countryside Fund. It is an idea I had four years ago, but it took Mark Price, the Managing Director of Waitrose and then the Chairman of the Rural Action Leadership Programme, to persuade other major food companies and retailers to lay down their competitive instincts for a moment and work together for the common good of our precious countryside and the associated rural communities through a cause-related marketing campaign. I do not know anyone else who could have achieved such a feat and, having launched it in July, I am delighted that it is already beginning to make an impact in rural Britain. And if you mind about the future of rural Britain and want to join this great campaign, please speak to Mark later this evening.

And I am also very glad that we have managed to get off the ground another initiative that I thought might be worth trying to accomplish as a result of spending a lot of my life visiting floods and other disasters that have happened in different parts of the country. It suddenly occurred to me recently when visiting Cumbria, that had been so badly affected, that we were missing a bit of a trick. So we managed to put together a Business Emergency Recovery Group of key business leaders, particularly in the insurance sector. One of the things I discovered when going round talking to people who had been flooded, is the difficulty they sometimes had with rogue loss assessors and people like that. There are all sorts of things I think the business community, when working together like this, can do in the aftermath of disasters having learnt some of these lessons. And in fact we flashed up this new venture the other day with the Cornish floods to - I hope - some effect.

But, as I said earlier, we have much more to do and there is considerable urgency. Up and down the country there are towns and communities which have been left behind over the last 25 years – places where hope and aspiration seem to have withered, or even evaporated, completely. One of the absolute priorities for me has to be to find those who can, at local level, broker and galvanise businesses, charities and the different parts of the public sector so that they work together in partnership to ensure that their communities are genuinely integrated into the fabric of national life. This can only really be done, it seems to me, by working from the grass roots up, to nurture what I could only call “community capital.” And I wonder whether, together, we should identify a few of those places in the next year and see what we can do? In case no-one noticed, that was a challenge to which I hope BITC and a number of you in this room might possibly feel like rising! And of course achieving “sustainable communities” actually means worrying about where people live, and designing/building genuine, human-scale places, rather than housing estates – and it should involve the enhancement of social and environmental value as well as commercial value.

It must also be acknowledged that, to some extent, society’s relationship with business is changing. With billions being pumped into economies across the world, it is clear that the landscape in which companies operate has changed. Society’s scrutiny of commercial behaviour is only going to increase and companies will need to consider, as never before, the real impact of their business decisions. I have been particularly heartened that the work of BITC’s Marketplace Leadership Team continues to ask fundamental questions about the direct effect of commercial activities on communities and – I might add – the environment.

It is clear from pretty much every measure you care to look at, that we are going to have to face many severe environmental challenges. From a massive loss of the world’s vital biodiversity to a dangerous lack of water; from the destruction of the rainforests to the potential collapse of global fish stocks; and this is in addition to the climate change which is caused by our increasing greenhouse gas emissions. For all these reasons, changing the way each of us behaves towards the Earth and her life-support systems is not just necessary, it is absolutely essential for the survival of Mankind on this planet. But of course this is no small undertaking - as you know far better than I. We have without a doubt arrived at a crossroads. As I have been pointing out for some time now, we face a very serious threat because if we fail the Earth, we fail humanity. So we cannot, at the end of the day ignore the choice that now confronts us and it seems to me that Britain ought to be leading the way.

Now ladies and gentlemen, if we approach these social, economic and environmental challenges in the right way, by looking at them in the round and seeing the links between them then, I believe, we will be able to chart a course that could lead us to a far more peaceful and harmonious future – and is not that what we all desire? To achieve it will require us to create well-founded conditions for co-existence and mutual understanding – an approach that allows for truly sustainable development and enables us to establish truly durable economies. If we do not get it right then we shall without a doubt end up on an altogether more troubling path – the one I fear we are inclined to tread, if we are not already on it. This is the one that leads to ecological decline, a massive loss of biodiversity, an increase in social tension, and yet more economic insecurity and conflict. Each of which of course, would be catastrophic for your businesses, let alone future generations.

What is so encouraging is that Business in the Community is at the heart of so many of the practical initiatives to address these crucial issues: from supporting Business Classes in the most challenging schools, mentoring young Muslims through my Mosaic initiative, supporting The Countryside Fund, and of course the Mayday initiative and, more recently, START, which I am delighted will now be developed from the hub of Business in the Community.

So ladies and gentlemen, I really could not be more grateful to everyone who has helped us to learn what works over the last 25 years. No matter how big or small your own business might be, every member company should celebrate what has been achieved. Over the years there have been so many outstanding examples of personal leadership, but, if I may, I would just like to single out two individuals whose recent contribution has been outstanding. Philip Green’s chairmanship of the Mayday Leadership Team has ensured that now well over three thousand businesses are committed to taking real action on their environmental footprints, while Steve Holliday’s work on Skills and Talents is helping to transform the ways that business helps young people into work. Safeguarding the environment and nurturing the talent of the young must continue to be at the heart of all that BITC does and so my gratitude to Philip and Steve is boundless.
And it occurred to me recently to reflect on the work of the regional ambassadors that I appoint around the country, because it seems to me that in future their role is going to become even more vital in terms of leadership and mobilisation.

But each and every one of you here today has played a part in the story that is Business in the Community. There are countless individuals and communities who would want to add their thanks to mine, I know that. But it is always to the future that we must look. And at our heart must be a determination to forge partnerships – working together, because working together we will achieve so much more and that means creating a new movement of cooperation between the business, public, charitable and NGO sectors. Those who are disadvantaged in this country demand it of us and with your help, we won’t fail them.