Small Talk: Lots of funding initiatives but precious few achievements

  • @davidprosserind

The patchwork quilt of different measures designed to fund the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises is at last being knitted together. But goodness, progress is slow.

It is now almost nine months since the Government-commissioned investigation led by former Legal & General boss Tim Breedon warned that business was facing a funding crisis because of the banks' inability to supply the credit required for growth. Mr Breedon put the total shortfall over the next five years at anywhere between £84bn and £191bn.

Since then we've had a succession of proposals for initiatives that might help to close the gap, but precious few real achievements.

Take Funding for Lending, the Bank of England initiative launched in the summer to encourage banks and building societies to boost lending to both households and businesses. Last week the Bank conceded that the scheme had so far produced no material increase in the supply of affordable credit – it now hopes to better results in 2013.

Or what about the £1.2bn Business Finance Partnership, the Government's attempt to increase the supply of funding through non-bank channels, unveiled in the 2011 Autumn Statement? It has only just got round to making some awards over the last few weeks – there was £600m of support for four new funds being set up by institutions such as M&G and Pricoa to lend to medium-sized businesses, plus £55m for the peer-to-peer lending sector.

However, we're still waiting for additional funding announcements from the initiative. In particular, it is believed to have around £300m of funding with which to boost lending from challenger banks such as Aldermore, Shawbrook and Metro.

Those institutions are just as deserving of a helping hand as the likes of peer-to-peer lenders, even if they're not the type of sexy internet start-ups that ministers like to be seen supporting. In fact, their achievements in offering new lending to business have been much more impressive.

Then there is the new Business Bank, the initiative the Government hopes will help to bring many of these ideas together. This has taken some time to get off the ground, and there has been speculation that officials at the Department for Business don't see eye-to-eye with their opposite numbers at the Treasury over the small print of the project.

Though both departments deny there is any such rift, it was only last week that we finally saw the announcement of leadership appointments. The hiring of the former Bank of Scotland chief executive Sir Peter Burt as chairman looks to be a sensible one. Sir Peter will now begin to work out exactly how the new bank will operate. The sooner he gets going the better.

Other ideas that seemed eye-catching at the time, meanwhile, are so far failing to bear fruit. The take-up of start-up loans for young entrepreneurs, for example, has been miserable. The Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme is struggling to capture investors' imagination.

It would be churlish to say there have been no unmitigated successes. The Business Growth Fund, for example, which provides equity funding to growing business, has really got into its stride over the past 12 months and will now support the development of the Business Bank. Tax incentives such as the Patent Box have been well received.

Nevertheless, another year has gone by without small businesses reporting any improvement in financing conditions. The support is not getting through – either because SMEs don't know about it or because it isn't working yet. Breaking the logjam should be New Year's Resolution number one for policymakers.

Regulations: Bonfire of red tape fails to ignite

What happened to the bonfire of red tape the Government promised small businesses?

Well, while the horrors of red tape are often overstated, we're certainly not cutting through it with any speed – at least not for SMEs, for whom regulation is most disruptive.

Take last week's announcement on the halving of the consultation period required from employees during a redundancy process. Cutting the length of the consultation period from 90 to 45 days may help some organisations, but not SMEs. The longer period only applied in cases where more than 100 redundancies are planned – it's hard to imagine any SME every shedding so many staff in one go.

As for the health and safety regulations from which the Government is still promising to exempt SMEs, how many rules will they really escape?

The Government says 3,000 pieces of regulation are included in the initiative. But the Institution of Occupational and Safety and Health points out there are only 200 or so health and safety regulations.

If nobody's there, cut down on the light fantastic!

Is your SME closing down for Christmas today? If so, would the last one out please turn off the lights?

Just one in four SMEs planning to shut down from Christmas Eve to the New Year have no plans to avoid wasting energy unnecessarily according to a survey of 300 small businesses from nPower. Given the increases in energy prices announced by all the providers in the run-up to Christmas, that's an expensive mistake.

Phil Scholes, nPower's SME markets director, says: "There are simple measures such as ensuring lights and equipment are switched off and heating systems are set to reflect the changes in opening hours, which can make a big difference."

Organisations that promote energy efficiency reckon SMEs can cut their bills about 20 per cent by managing energy use more effectively.

Small Businessman of the Week: Adam Bird, founder, Esendex

Esendex was born out of an idea my partner and I had for another business – it was targeted at 18-to-24 year-olds and we thought that text messages would be the way to drive transactions. Having set up the equipment and network connections to deliver SMSs reliably and consistently, we realised that the value was actually in providing this solution rather than the original business idea.

"We started selling the service to businesses – delivering key figures by SMS to their finance directors, for example – and we've evolved into a business that now provides communications solutions to companies that add real value to their business.

"We work with Ocado, for example, sending customers text messages with delivery information, and with the cab firm Addison Lee, whose customers now get texts with the registration plate of the vehicles coming to pick them up.

"We've been successful because our focus has been on the value we bring, rather than the medium through which we do it. These are often mission-critical messages that companies count on getting through to customers and they've become an intrinsic element of their service."