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12 February 2014

A small question of confidence

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

By Giulia Cambieri

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.

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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.