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 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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