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.

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.