06Outstanding challenges for the business support infrastructure

The key weaknesses of the current business support system – duplication, poor coordination, complexity, difficulty of navigation and engagement – could be improved through the introduction of a coherent business support infrastructure. The importance of reshaping the infrastructure has been highlighted by most of those interviewed and was one of the key challenges discussed in Lord Heseltine’s Growth Review ‘No Stone Unturned’. There is more than one way in which the business support infrastructure could be shaped but, beyond the immediate task of addressing the complexity, the new structure should reflect the two following principles:

1. Help business that aspire to grow and engage with the ‘long tail’

There are two components to the challenge of promoting business growth in the UK:There are two components to the challenge of promoting business growth in the UK:

  • Addressing barriers that restrict the growth of businesses with growth aspirations
  • Engaging with the ‘long tail’ of underperforming businesses.

The first challenge is most efficiently addressed through demand-driven policy, which implies that business should tell government what it needs, and government needs to make sure the relevant services are provided either by private or public sector. This approach requires limited local engagement, mostly focused on identifying and channelling the needs of the business. Businesses that pro-actively seek support can often learn about the options via online tools and are less reliant on face-to-face contact with advisers or coordinators, even though they still may be required in some cases.

The task of addressing the ‘tail’ is much more demanding. Rather than being demand-based it needs to raise aspirations, helping business owners recognise growth opportunities. This approach requires a pro-active attitude from providers and stronger local representation. Yet as only a small portion of businesses are likely to aspire to grow these activities need to be focused and targeted and their remit must be clearly defined.

In order to make the largest impact new business support infrastructure should be able to address both of these challenges.

2. Create a structure that will be sustainable and will be able to adjust to change

Businesses prefer stable and predictable environments. Although many may have had concerns about the way that support was delivered by the RDAs, at least they knew where to look for it. Since the RDAs were abolished, there has been no clear and visible access point. If and when changes are made to business support, attention should be given to the long-term sustainability of any new institutions and policies. In order to maintain business confidence, institutions should ideally be able to adapt to change, rather than be scrapped every time government thinking changes.

The key challenge for the new business support infrastructure will be in finding the right balance between the provision of services at the national level, with scale and efficiency advantages, and the local delivery of business support, allowing for better engagement and provision of bespoke services that address unique local needs.