In the last few months as the Coalition Government in the UK has struggled to deal with huge deficits and other financial matters left behind by the previous government, one of their lesser known decisions is very rapidly about to have a significant impact on the small business world. This decision is to remove the Business Link service as from the 25th November, a decision which for a long list of reasons, is going to prove a very detrimental step indeed.
Prior to the arrival of the Business Link service across the UK in the mid 1990’s one could rightly argue that the level and standard of advice being given to start-ups was pretty much of a post code lottery. Many so called Enterprise Agencies that were operating at the time were no more than one man businesses, literally in many cases as the number of women working in this sector was very small. Even worse was the fact that many of these Agencies were staffed by people who had little or no self employment experience.
The introduction of Business Links changed all this significantly and for the last 15 years or so the range and general quality of services available across the country have improved out of sight. Unfortunately one of the real weaknesses of the Business Link system is that it is a national body, albeit with regional influences and differences, and one of their problems has been their relatively poor promotional performance and their inability to reach much more than 15% of total start-ups each year. Despite this Business Links have, across the country, provided advice, information and training workshops for many hundreds of thousands of new business start-ups.
The recent general election in the UK and the forced requirement to concentrate on cutting the huge financial deficits, has caused the new government to decide that the Business Link system has failed and that it should be closed down. In making this decision I believe that the government has listened to all the wrong people, individuals who because of their public profile have had a very disproportionate effect on the decision process. Civil Servants and Dragons Den type entrepreneurs are not the people the Government should have been listening to. They should have been talking, and listening, to people like me, a provider of services on behalf of Business Link, and lots of others like me, and they should have talked to the many thousands of people who have benefitted from the fantastic range of advice, information and support, much of it for free, that has helped many hundreds of thousands of new business start-ups succeed. They would have given the Government a very different view of the value of Business Link. My own Business Link East has surely been one of the most successful of all of them and the thought that all this expertise is now going to be lost very soon is very worrying. Unfortunately there is now nothing that can be done to stop or reverse this bad decision and my worry is actually that we could easily revert to the type of post code lottery that existed before.
Nothing that I have read about the new Local Enterprise Partnerships leads me to think that they will be able to plug the huge gap in small business support services across the UK.
The simple fact is that most start-ups want practical advice, guidance and information from people who are experienced start-up practitioners and a lot of this valuable expertise will now be lost to them.
In our own way my business partner and I want to help to plug this gap which is why we are setting up a new online business to deal with the many simple questions that most start-ups want answers to whilst also offering a business support package to existing small business owners who want to stay in business but find it difficult to find the time to deal with all the mundane stuff that comes across our desks all so often. However this article is about much more than an obvious plug for our new service. I am a small business owner and I know the fantastic job that Business Links have done and will continue to do till they disappear in November. Such a waste of both knowledge and talent and once gone it will be very difficult to replace it!!
I would welcome opinions and comments about this important subject, especially from people who have experienced what Business Links can and have offered.