Resources: Enter all-in-one business advice: Support agencies are linking up to offer companies a service that is more user-friendly

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THE CONFUSING maze of local agencies that provide business support advice is believed to be deterring companies from taking up the advice services currently on offer.

Chambers of Commerce, Training and Enterprise Councils, Enterprise Agencies, local authorities and the Department of Trade and Industry itself are said to be in touch with only 40 per cent of the companies that might benefit from the information, advice and consultancy services they provide.

Michael Heseltine, president of the Board of Trade, wants to make it possible for business users to gain access to the range of services from these different organisations through the provision of 'One Stop Shops'. Applications to run these have been invited from partnerships of local business support agencies under the leadership of the local TEC, and about 60 had been received by the 29 January closing date.

A decision is expected by the end of March. Up to pounds 3.5m will be available from the DTI to help towards start-up costs for the pilot schemes.

One Stop Shops are to be open to firms of any size, including start-ups and very small businesses, but with the future emphasis on those with growth potential.

The menu should include library and information services; advice on grants, British standards, taxes, the single market, design, marketing and environmental issues; access to start-up and survival counselling, to Enterprise Initiative and TEC-supported consultancy, and to subsidised training schemes.

Players in the crowded enterprise support field have generally welcomed the opportunity that the One Stop Shop initiative has given them to put aside institutional rivalries and co-ordinate their services.

Some regions however have already rationalised their services through Training and Enterprise Councils, and there is concern that another business support agency will create more rather than less confusion.

There are also fears about the adequacy of the funding in relation to the quality and breadth of services One Stop Shops are expected to provide. The small amount of additional DTI funds promised so far suggests the financial burden will fall heavily on the TECs and other local partners at a time when their own sources of finance are under pressure.

Bidders have been sceptical of the DTI's expectation that fee income for the services of the One Stop Shops will be an important source of revenue. The big question about the One Stop Shops is whether the framework put forward by the DTI will be able to deliver Mr Heseltine's hoped-for 'springboard for the development of our local and national economies'.

The jury is still out on this, waiting to see the pilot schemes in action.

It will then become clear whether the shops will turn out to be, as one commentator close the bidding process put it, 'an amalgamation of inadequate existing services, or sophisticated business development centres serving the tiny minority of technically sophisticated, growth-oriented businesses which really contribute to economic development'.