Small business help network goes national

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


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.

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Finance Manager - Bank - Leeds - £300/day

£250 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Finance Manager - Accountant - Bank...

Compliance Officer - CF10, CF11, Compliance Oversight, AML, FX

£100000 - £120000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: A leading fi...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn