Small business help network goes national

One-stop advice: Minister rejects criticism as Business Links prepare to expand to 240 offices

PETER RODGERS

Business Editor

The Government has raised its target for new Business Links offices - one-stop advice centres for small businesses - to at least 240 to be open by next March.

Richard Page, the small firms minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, said the project was now ready to be put on a national footing as a network with coverage through the whole of England.

Mr Page, in an interview with the Independent, rejected criticisms of the effectiveness of Business Links as "unfair and impatient", because so few of the 140 offices now set up had been fully commissioned for more than a year.

Those that had settled down, such as the Birmingham Business Link, were producing "superb" stories about their help to business locally.

"We certainly have not got 140 fully up to speed delivering every service to the efficiency we would want to see. Some have just opened their doors and London is not even up and running," Mr Page said.

He wanted the service to be operating nationally and working to high common standards before critics should be allowed to make judgements about performance.

Mr Page promised there would be strict monitoring of service standards. The DTI also planned to employ "mystery shoppers" posing as small business managers to test Business Links offices.

The Business Links began with a small number of pilot projects in 1993, building to 100 offices this spring. The current total of 140 is expected to expand by another 100 by the end of the financial year. Earlier this year the DTI estimated that the number would reach 200 by the end of 1995.

The Links offices, and the similar enterprise networks in Scotland, are designed to provide a single retail outlet for all the DTI's services for small business, as well as those of the Chambers of Commerce, Training and Enterprise Councils, local authorities and other regionally based organisations.

They are aimed at start-up business and existing firms that are expanding. The target market is firms with at least 10 employees. Until recently, small businesses have had to go to a confusingly large number of sources for help and advice.

The TECs and other bodies involved are acting as partners with the DTI in the individual Business Links. But in some areas there are reports of serious teething troubles, such as disagreements over demarcation lines between the new offices and the older organisations that originally provided some of the services.

Chambers of Commerce say Business Links should be regarded as retail outlets for small firm support services and should not take over a wider role as representatives of local business.

Mr Page said that because of the embryonic state of many of the Business Links, the DTI had held back from a national campaign to promote the service, and marketing had been done only at a local level where individual offices were up and running.

The national launch of the service is to be announced next Tuesday in a presentation at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London by Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade.

The Business Links will employ at least 600 personal business advisers and about 200 specialists, including about 80 export advisers, of whom eight are already in place. The other advisers will have expertise in design, innovation and technology and Mr Page said he wanted the Business Links to work closely with clearing banks and other local sources of finance.

He also wanted to them to become increasingly independent of state aid, by charging for their services: "I want them to be businesslike."

The DTI predicts that the total turnover of the Business Links offices will be about pounds 100m a year by 1998-99, of which 20 to 25 per cent will be fee income from small firms - a proportion Mr Page wants to increase in subsequent years.

Earlier this year, the DTI announced an extra pounds 100m of funding for government advice services to be delivered through Business Links, spread over four years from the 1995-96 financial year.

The Birmingham Business Link, one of the pilot projects, now has turnover of pounds 7m, of which about 25 per cent is already in the form of contributions from clients rather than the Government.

Birmingham has 130 staff, of whom 26 are employed directly. The rest are advisers operating under contract and staff seconded from Tecs, Birmingham City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the West Midlands government offices.

Alan Dow, chief executive of the Birmingam Business Link, said that with 8,000 clients, the organisation had reached the stage where it could in theory even be privatised and survive, though that would restrict the range of services to those that were economic on a fee charging basis.

Other services the government is keen to see provided to small businesses on a subsidised basis might have to be dropped if the organisation were to be fully self supporting.

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