Britain could have much to learn from Germany. Photo: Jochen Zick-Pool/Getty Images
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A small question of confidence

Much needs to be done, especially when it comes to access to credit.

Flick through the business pages, and you will find countless news articles on the latest share price and quarterly results of the multimillion-pound FTSE-100 companies. It is easy to forget that these businesses account for a small minority of firms in the UK; Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of our economy.

According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, there were 4.9 million SMEs in the UK at the start of 2013, making up 99.9 per cent of the country’s private-sector businesses. Their combined revenue accounted for £1.6bn, or 48.1 per cent of total private-sector turnover, and they employ about 14.4 million people, corresponding to 59.3 per cent of the private-sector workforce. When SMEs grow, it’s the whole country that prospers, as usually they reinvest their profits, creating more jobs and boosting exports. So, is the government doing enough to support them?

There have been a few steps in the right direction. Business regulation has been reduced and simplified, and under the government’s Employment Allowance scheme, which will start in April this year, SMEs have been granted a £2,000 tax cut on their employer National Insurance contributions.

But still much needs to be done, especially when it comes to access to credit. “A third of our members are repeatedly saying in our quarterly surveys that they are having difficulties accessing adequate finance to grow their businesses,” says Mark Cherry, national policy chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses, the sector lobby group. This is especially worrying at a time when business optimism in the country has picked up – last month it reached its highest level in 22 years, according to research by the advisory firm BDO – because this shows that some of these small businesses will find themselves unable to grow even as the economic environment finally starts to improve.

Some government initiatives to increase lending to small businesses, including the Funding for Lending and Enterprise Finance Guarantee schemes, seem to be having only limited impact on the problem. Figures from the Bank of England show that net lending to businesses fell by £4.3bn in the three months to November 2013. The state-backed British Business Bank, which should become operational next year after it receives state aid approval from the EU, will also support lending to SMEs, but we’ll need to wait and see how big an effect it will have.

Increasing competition in the banking sector should be a priority, as SMEs at present are dependent on a small number of reluctant lenders. Equally important is that this support be sustained in the long term. “Short-term initiatives aren’t really taken up by small businesses because they have to adapt their plans to take advantage of some of these schemes,” Cherry says.

Other countries, notably Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, have done a better job at strengthening their SME sector (what the Germans call their Mittelstand) by providing funding for firms that want to do research to help develop products. Through KfW – Germany’s business bank – the government also provides loans on favourable terms to SMEs that want to export to developing countries or invest in energy-saving programmes.

The British economy grew by 1.9 per cent in 2013, outperforming even Germany. Now just think what would happen if we championed our very own Mittelstand.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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