Business pages are always full of articles claiming that SMEs need more help from the Government.
But equally, there have been a number of upbeat and positive reports that suggest the opposite is the case, so what is the truth?
According to the business lender Iwoca, lending to SMEs in deprived areas has dropped dramatically, by 8% between 2014 and 2018. Iwoca CEO Christoph Rieche has said: “It’s concerning that, in many parts of the country, major banks aren’t serving small and microbusinesses with the funding required to help them thrive. SMEs are vital for the health of the economy.”
The figures are borne out by UK Finance, which has revealed that small business loans and overdraft balances from big banks fell by almost 16% in the North West between the end of 2014 and September last year, from £9.8bn to £8.2bn, while loans and overdraft balances in London fell by only 2.3%. Wales saw a 14.2% drop, while Yorkshire and the Humber posted a 10.9% decline.
The CEO of the British Business Bank has also argued that the Government should invest “billions” more in SMEs if it wants to deliver on its promise of levelling up all parts of the UK.
Earlier this month reports in the Financial Times and the Times criticised the Prime Minister for ignoring business groups such as the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), BCC (British Chambers of Commerce) and the IoD (Institute of Directors) in a speech he gave on EU trade negotiations.
An aide (unnamed) later reportedly criticised these business bodies for failing to prepare their members for “a Canada-style free trade deal” and said they were unlikely to get Government attention unless they fulfilled their responsibility to their members.
Another issue high on the SME agenda is the Apprenticeship Levy, which is failing SMEs, according to the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) leading to a 24% drop in apprenticeship starts since the new scheme was introduced in 2017.
However, there has been some positive news for SMEs, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has confirmed that a £1bn of new loans is to be made available to small construction companies, under a loan guarantee scheme.
Let us hope it is not like the Enterprise Guarantee (EFG) scheme that was introduced in January 2009 to replace the Small Firms Loan Guarantee (SFLG) scheme that was introduced in 1981.
While both provided for a government guarantee to underwrite bank lending to SMEs, the SFLG scheme was a key contributor to the grown of the UK economy under Mrs Thatcher’s government through encouraging entrepreneurs. The SFLG repaid the banks as lenders to companies upon insolvency of the but was very different to the EFG that required personal guarantees from directors and only repaid the bank lenders after bankruptcy of directors as guarantors. It is no wonder that the EFG failed. We can only hope that the new breed of young advisers to Rishi Sunak, as the new chancellor read history but I am not holding my breath.
In the meantime, there are other initiatives, many aimed at the regions such as the Midlands where FSE Group has been appointed by the Midlands Engine Investment Fund to manager an estimated £40 million fund for its region’s businesses.
An example of stimulus for SMEs was that reported by Civil Service World who found that the proportion of government spending going to SMEs exceeded 25% for the first time in four years last year, as smaller firms won an extra £2bn in Whitehall contracts.
There are without doubt burning issues for SMEs that need to be addressed, such as tougher action on late payments, reform of business rates and reliable, efficient broadband in rural areas and market towns, on which there has been little Government comment so far. We might however have found a champion in Philip King, the recently appointed Interim Small Business Commissioner, who is promoting the Prompt Payment Code (promptpaymentcode.org) to focus a spotlight on the payment record of large firms.
We shouldn’t ignore the positive signs from Government following its election with a clear mandate and a sense of purpose to make things happen which in turn will rely on a strong economy.
The budget on March 11, may yet contain some real help for SMEs and at least will let us know whether the Government is aware of SMEs and their concerns.