Will Business Link soon be Out-of-Business Link?

Sounds like the business support organisation may get the heave-ho if the Tories win the Election.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Small business owners tend to have fairly polarised views of Business Link. Some, who have stumbled upon a good adviser, think it’s the best thing since sliced bread; others think it’s a total waste of the £190m (yes, £190m) that the Government spends on it every year. And it seems the Tories are in the latter camp: shadow enterprise minister Mark Prisk said this week that one of his first acts if he gets into Government will be to scrap Business Link altogether. On the whole, we suspect relatively few tears will be shed – as long as it’s replaced by something better...

Prisk told the Times that the regional Business Links were ‘failing in their task’, and that firms just weren’t using them. ‘Many surveys show that only a small proportion of businesses use them and those that do are dissatisfied with the service they receive,’ he growled. In general, he said, the Tory view was the ‘Government does not know best when it comes to free enterprise’ – instead, the politicians should focus on giving small firms the best possible conditions in which to thrive (on tax and regulation, for instance), and then getting as far out of the way as possible. This chimes with the view put forward forcefully by ex-Dragon Doug Richard, in his recent manifesto on UK enterprise.

Business Link (which, incidentally, was the brainchild of our old boss Michael Heseltine) tends to get a bad rap these days. There clearly are good BL advisers out there with good commercial experience, but for many entrepreneurs, the idea of being advised on starting a company by a civil servant tends to stick in the craw. Since the arrival of the internet, its role as a resource aggregator is no longer as necessary. And despite recent improvements, that £190m bill still looks pretty steep. Indeed, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, only about a fifth of their members bother using the service. So maybe it is time for a re-think.

But the question is: will a replacement service be any better? The Tory plan is to scrap it and boost the role of the local enterprise agencies (and it’s true that their services already overlap). But at least Business Link provides an obvious point of contact and support for wannabe entrepreneurs, even if it ultimately directs their enquiries elsewhere; whatever comes next won’t want to lose that. In some ways it would be much easier just to reform the existing service – but of course that’s not such an easy political win.

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