As strong economic headwinds and the cost-of-living crisis start to bite, small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are bracing themselves for the multiple challenges that lie ahead. Following on from the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, lockdowns, the fast easing of restrictions, and now a difficult economic climate, many SMEs, which play a vital role in their communities, will have their resilience tested. However, if small businesses are given the right support, and if they are given the opportunity to prosper and grow, with access to finance and the networks that buttress success, they can play a vital role in promoting social mobility, spurring growth, building back better and in levelling up in every part of the UK.
In June, NatWest hosted the first-ever in-person round table of the SME Taskforce, a group established in 2020 to bring together policymakers, business groups, as well as small businesses themselves, to discuss the issues they are facing. The SME Taskforce uses a collaborative approach to develop ways in which their problems can be addressed and solutions found in partnership with government and the financial services sector, but had only met virtually up until this point.
The choice of a first meeting place was in a propitious location: the Yorkshire city of Bradford, which had only the week before been announced as winner of the UK City of Culture 2025 under the banner “Our Time, Our Place”. It was in this spirit that the gathered decision-makers, business leaders and SME groups explored some of the issues facing the communities around them.
Ahead of the round table, SME Taskforce members spent the morning in the Bradford Impact Hub, a social innovation and co-working space in the historic Little Germany district of the town centre, helping social entrepreneurs, start-ups and change-makers come together to make a positive social impact. “Bradford is the UK’s youngest city, and it has so much growth potential,” said Impact Hub CEO Kamran Rashid. But the city had more than its fair share of problems – economic deprivation, poor connectivity, and low levels of literacy, to name just a few – he added.
SME Taskforce members went on to discuss the opportunities presented by developing responsible business practices at a later “Seeing is Believing” event organised by Business in the Community (BITC), with contributions from senior business leaders from across the country, including the NatWest chief executive Alison Rose. BITC’s work bringing together hundreds of businesses to help use their power to create a fairer and more sustainable future was highlighted by its chief executive, Amanda Mackenzie.
“What we realise is that our leverage and power as businesses in the community, our power to make changes in our society, is second to none,” Mackenzie told delegates. Through its work, which includes a focus on UN Sustainable Development Goals, BITC and its affiliates had “been doing ‘levelling up’ for 40 years – before the phrase was ever invented”, she said.
Rose highlighted NatWest’s work with BITC and described “Seeing is Believing” events as “an opportunity for those of us who are running businesses to get out into the communities where we live and work, and that we support, and see what’s really going on”.
“It’s about listening and finding out what’s working and how we can practically help and learn to support local communities,” Rose continued. Unlocking people’s potential, and unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen that exists up and down the UK would be essential to building back better and driving prosperity, she said.
“NatWest is the largest bank supporting thousands of businesses in places like Bradford and up and down the country,” Rose told attendees. “Our job is to provide support, empower and enable SMEs to create jobs and enable the economy to thrive.”
Accompanying delegates from national and multinational firms working in a range of sectors, SME Taskforce members joined the NatWest chief executive on a site visit to a vibrant local business, the Huma Humad bridal shop. The company, run by brother and sister Hummad and Humma Ilyas, has seen success serving the British Asian community of Bradford as well as through exporting all over the world and participating in fashion weeks as far away as Pakistan and Dubai. Huma Humad was a prime example of an SME making an impact and having strong roots in its local community. But Hummad told BITC and SME Taskforce delegates that the company had been through many “trials and tribulations”, particularly when it came to initial funding and financing.
“There’s so much opportunity, and so much potential, but it’s just too hard to get access to all of the support that’s out there,” said NatWest’s Rose. From training, advice and guidance to finance or equity, “our job is to make it easier for people who are running businesses to get that support”, she added.
To discuss these levers of support in more detail, the SME Taskforce concluded its Bradford visit with the aforementioned round-table discussion, including representation from NatWest, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). They were joined by members of the regional SME Taskforce for the north and members of Bradford City Council. Martin McTague, national chair of the FSB, emphasised the cost pressures that his members and many small businesses were currently facing. “A lot of small businesses are operating on less than three months’ cash,” he said. “They just don’t have the resources and a lot of them are really struggling.” Now more than ever, access to finance would be essential to keeping many afloat and spurring new growth, he added.
Andrew Harrison, head of business banking at NatWest, reiterated a central commitment to collaboratively work out ways to create a better environment for SMEs to be successful. This wasn’t, he said, about one bank or one council or one business group becoming a one-stop shop for support, but instead a network of organisations working in partnership to embrace a holistic approach to creating SME success stories. Through that success, SMEs can continue to play a role as dynamic centres of their communities, innovating, growing and providing essential services and local employment both directly and through their supply chains. Harrison committed to using the SME Taskforce to create an ecosystem of SME support, “continue sharing best practice” and foster collaboration into the future. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet,” he warned attendees, “but together, if we break down our silos, we can help move this agenda forward.”
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