All this swap and change is bad for SMEs

SMEs face uncertainty.

Last week I sat for an hour or so with a couple of entrepreneurs. They have both founded more than one business and are both heavily involved in helping to promote the UK’s start-up and small business economy, one through Start-up Britain and the other through Young Brits and the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance. As often happens when you talk to entrepreneurs, the discussion turned to the relationship between government and business and the role government plays in promoting a better environment for those running a business. Both were clear that the UK has a long and noble tradition of an economy built on small business, with several references during the conversation to Napoleon’s description of a "nation of shopkeepers".

The consensus, as it often is, was that government’s role is to create the conditions for start-ups and existing businesses to grow and thrive and then get out of the way and let them get on with it. "We need an end to this constant political need to announce new initiatives," said Alex Mitchell, co-founder of Young Brits. In short, both wanted a bit less government. In fairness, the stated ambition of most politicians for the last 20 years (and maybe longer) has been reducing red tape. This chimes well with entrepreneurs, but all the talking has hardly resulted in less regulation. The current government has made a lot of its commitment to red-tape reduction. It has appointed two "entrepreneurs in residence" at BIS, launched a Red Tape Challenge and promised that all new legislation will be introduced on a "one-in, one-out" basis.

It was interesting last week to see a number of legislative announcements within a few days of each other, all purporting to make life easier for those running businesses. At least two of them will impose new reporting requirements on some or all listed companies. What’s given with one hand in terms of easing the burden on businesses seems bound to be whipped away with the other.

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act is intended to make life easier for those running small businesses and in large part it has been welcomed as achieving that by those it aims to help. But as is often the case, simplification is complicated and the new rules and regulations surrounding areas such as settlement agreements will require entrepreneurs to put in time and effort to understand them. In the long-term there may be benefits for those running SMEs, but in the short term the time pressures may increase. The entrepreneurs last week were clear the best red tape reduction policy of all would be for the government to just stop doing things. A moratorium on any new policy announcements would be the best initiative.

Less welcome in some quarters (judging by reactions to our story on it) was the announcement of changes to the Companies Act requiring listed companies to divulge information in their annual reports on subjects such as diversity (giving the breakdown of the number of men and women on their board, in senior management positions and across the company as a whole), the company’s greenhouse gas emissions and human rights, as well as a new strategic report that focuses on the business model, strategy and risks to replace the existing business report. Even those who welcomed some of these changes (partly out of desire to see this narrative part of company reports be more useful) reacted negatively to the tight timetable imposed, with the changes due to come into force from 1 October, 2013.

Elsewhere, the EU was also trumpeting simplification while adding in a degree of complexity for some companies. The abolition of mandatory quarterly reporting was welcomed by most, but the requirement for country-by-country reporting in certain sectors was less welcomed by those affected, although it will please those keen to see greater transparency in reporting. The new accounting framework also reduces reporting requirements on small and micro businesses, although the category of micro business is a new addition to the regulations.

These are just some of the recent changes announced and all from last week. The net result of all this change is uncertainty. One thing that those at the sharp end, running businesses, talk about is the need for greater certainty. The confidence to invest in their businesses, which is ultimately what will be behind any sustained economic recovery, depends on it. Perhaps it is time for the politicians to leave business to just get on running and growing their businesses.

This piece first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.