Just over 30 years ago, a new enterprise support service was launched. Business Link was designed to replace a host of fragmented business support offerings and lasted until its demise under the Coalition Government in 2012.
At its heart, it offered a simple proposition – an online resource backed by a network of 89 regional officers and (at its height) a team of 650 ‘personal business advisers’ to deliver on-the-ground support to a wide range of SMEs.
In many ways, we are at a similar point to the one we were at in 1992 when the programme was first set up. We have a very fragmented system of business support with too little co-operation between agencies, too few business owners seeking help, high numbers of business insolvencies and like variations in the quality of locally-delivered advice.
The local enterprise partnerships (LEPS) which replaced Business Link range from the very good and proactive to simply a telephone number. Plus, in the last round of funding, many have seen their budgets slashed at the same time as European money (ERDF and ESF) has finished.
We believe that the time is now right to revisit the Business Link model and refresh it for today’s post Covid, post Brexit, uncertain business landscape.
1. There should be one, single website for UK business support. In the USA, they already have one single website - https://www.sba.gov/ - for SMEs, whilst in Australia they have https://business.gov.au/
2. We should upgrade the existing LEP network to help create regional hubs. At the same time, we should be working closely with the economic development teams from local authorities to understand where the areas of greatest need may be. This is about using local knowledge and data to target a wide spread of enterprises.
3. And we need an army of properly trained business advisers working at a local level (districts within counties and areas within unitaries) who can do proper outreach work. Running a business has never been more complicated with ESG, GDPR, digitisation, threats from AI adding to the already considerable workload. It therefore makes sense to have people who have at least an understanding of all these areas delivering business support
With a renewed focus on the Levelling Up agenda, the imminent introduction of Making Tax Digital (MTD) plus the need for the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) to replace the old European funding, we have a fantastic opportunity to take a strategic view of how to support the UK’s millions of SMEs. We think Business Link 2.0 may well be the most cost effective long-term solution.