The halcyon days of regional Business Links are long gone. Today, business owners have to content with new Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which – as the name suggests – are more likely to bat you around in a bout of hold-music badminton than explain in painstaking detail the process of uploading one’s accounts to Companies House.
The FPB’s members haven’t pulled their punches in their criticism of the new body: 30% of members consider support from Business Link to be irrelevant to their business and 40% said they had not required its support to date anyway.
Despite this ‘to hell with you, LEPs’ attitude, however, 21% of respondents said they have, at some point in the past, used their local Business Link's face-to-face service. This was the most popular facet of ye old Link, which has now been replaced by a central website and call centre.
‘It is probably true that the old Business Link services were underused but the removal of local advisers providing a face-to-face service has not been popular,’ says the Forum's senior policy adviser Alex Jackman. The move was made in 2010 to save bags of cash for our beleaguered government.
Worries over the lack of LEP funding maybe be appeased shortly, however. Earlier this month, Whitehall revealed that it is releasing £125m to 14 LEPs to lend to local companies – not an insubstantial pot, given the government’s current economic woes.
But it’s not just about money. LEPs are failing to provide the kind of joined-up system that encourages bodies like HMRC to give more support to SMEs, Jackman says. ‘Practical and valued support should come from organisations such as HMRC being prepared to treat small businesses with more understanding and respect, rather than continually wielding the stick.’
It sounds like a slight case of 'grass is always greener'. Small businesses are continually pushing for more funding and better services but, as the FPB admits, when we had a bells-and-whistles Business Link, no one used it. Perhaps if we gave these initiatives a chance, and tried to make the most of them while they're around, they wouldn't be so easily earmarked for the chop in austerity drives...