Shadow business minister Mark Prisk has said that one of his first acts should the Conservatives win the general election later this year would be to scrap Business Link, the national business advisory service that costs £190m per annum to run and employs 1,600 people across the UK.
In an interview reported in the Sunday Times he said; “We believe that regional Business Links are failing in their task. Only a small proportion of businesses use them and those that do are dissatisfied with the service they receive. I take the view that you shouldn’t employ civil servants to tell small-business owners how to run their firms”.
Mark Froud – chief executive of Sussex Enterprise which administers the Sussex Business Link contract – disputed the claims citing a 92% satisfaction rating among the 30,000 businesses that had been helped in Sussex in 2009..
He also challenged the notion that civil servants were dispensing advice to small businesses pointing out that all the Sussex advisers had either run their own businesses or been senior managers in medium sized companies.
The proposal to axe the regional Business Links is part of a wider Conservative programme to take a more hands-off approach to small business concentrating instead on creating the right environment for business growth.
The Business Link service was originally conceived seventeen years ago by Michael Heseltine when he was President of the Board of Trade but Mark Prisk would like it replaced by an enhanced network of more locally based enterprise agencies which he envisages would be funded in the first instance by a government grant supplemented by local authorities and Chambers of Commerce. Eventually they would be expected to generate their own revenue streams and become self-funding.
The Business Link service is variable across the country but recently business associations have cautiously welcomed improvements which have led to higher satisfaction ratings from business [such as that in Sussex]. The Business Link website is also highly regarded as a source of quick, reliable and digestible information.
Business Link in the south east is funded by the regional development agency SEEDA and a new, single contract for the whole region, due to commence in April, has just been awarded to SERCO.
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