Banks 'lending to most small firms'

The majority of small businesses who have applied for loans or overdrafts in the past 12 months were successful, according to new research published today.

Some 72% of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) who applied for an overdraft got a positive response while 59% of loan applicants received their request, according to a study commissioned by the chief executives at Britain's six biggest banks.

But only one in six - or 15% - of businesses surveyed have applied for a new facility or renewed an existing one in the past 12 months.

The figures, based on more than 5,000 telephone interviews, address concerns over the level of bank lending to small businesses after official figures suggested that banks were falling short of agreements drawn up with the Government under Project Merlin.

The research was conducted by market research firm BDRC Continental, which was selected by the cross-bank Business Finance Taskforce, to report on a quarterly basis.

Business lobbying organisation the CBI said it was concerned the figures showed SMEs lacked confidence when considering borrowing from banks.

Katja Hall, CBI chief policy director, said: "It's concerning that far fewer SMEs are confident about receiving the funding they apply for over the next quarter than those who actually got what they asked for last year.

"This shows that banks need to work hard to build stronger relationships with their smaller business customers."

Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group, HSBC and Santander UK lent £16.8 billion to SMEs in the first three months of the year, earlier figures from the Bank of England said.

Under the Project Merlin agreement the banks said they would increase lending available to SMEs to £76 billion this year, which equates to £19 billion in the first quarter.

The figures showed the banks were on course to meet overall business lending targets of £190 billion this year, equal to £47.5 billion for the quarter, as they lent £47.3 billion in the period.

The British Bankers' Association (BBA) said today's SME Finance Monitor was encouraging and showed businesses were able to get the credit they need.

A statement from the BBA said: "The picture is also complex with many customers clearly still concerned about the economic climate and so are less inclined to borrow."

Elsewhere, the research revealed certain types of SMEs were less likely to be offered what they wanted, such as those with smaller numbers of employees as well as younger companies.

SMEs which did not approach a bank cited four main reasons - current economic climate, discouragement after making an informal inquiry at the bank, cost and time involved with borrowing and the principle of borrowing.

Looking ahead, one in five SMEs is expected to apply for new finance in the next three months.

Steve Radley, director of policy at manufacturing organisation EEF, which is a member of the Business Finance Taskforce, said: "While this survey simply provides us with a snapshot of experiences and intentions, it does shed some new light on levels of discouraged demand.

"A significant proportion of small companies is put off from approaching a bank for external finance and we need to see this start to fall in the coming quarters."