6 January 2011

So at long last the worst guarded secret in Whitehall is out in the open – Business Links will cease to be in November this year. I will wait until nearer the time before I pass my judgement on the demise but it is appropriate to look at the policies and services which are likely to replace BL.

We will see a new website which is to be welcomed. The current site has a wealth of information available albeit that it is sometimes difficult to find and moves to improve the navigation are to be welcomed. A telephone contact centre to back up the website is interesting as it would appear to be (from the latest BIS paper) that the individuals will only be there to access the website for those not digitally connected. I have concerns that the helpline could have very low satisfaction levels if they cannot deal effectively with client queries. This is not a directory enquiries type of operation and I will bet that the majority of callers will be looking for bespoke answers to individual questions not some form of “information dump”. No doubt we will learn more as time goes on but I am not inspired at the moment.

The Enterprise Allowance has been resurrected which I am very pleased about as I raised this in a meeting with Mark Prisk some 3 years ago. The radio debate on the Jeremy Vine show on Wednesday 5 January was very interesting with many examples of successful businesses who started out in the 1980’s thanks to EA. However the overriding fact to emerge was that nearly every caller ranked the help and support that they received from Enterprise Agencies as just as important if not more so than the funding. This is the missing element in the new EA. Mr Prisk it is not too late to put a great value for money support package in place to complement this welcome initiative.

I am dismayed at the hype surrounding the “mentor” bank which claims to have 40,000 mentors available. Firstly are these new mentors or just a restating of what is already out there with respected organisations such as the Princes Trust? Secondly for a mentor relationship to work it needs to be “matched” so that the right person is linked with the correct business. Without this there will be hundreds of horror stories which will blow any credibility that this scheme has. Finally who is monitoring the quality of the mentors? Will they be qualified or is it a free for all with unscrupulous individuals looking at personal gain through the relationships? I totally support mentoring being a mentor myself but it is not as easy as some people in government seem to think. When I see 40,000 individuals and their details on a website then I will believe the numbers but until then I am very wary.

The future of this country is indeed in the hands of an enterprising minority. I would like all support aimed at starting up new businesses with a good foundation and then allowing the faster growth companies to buy in support as needed – no more picking winners please. Just look back to the 1980’s with the greatest jump in entrepreneurship seen in any western country – learn and repeat and we can look forward to another era of great prosperity.

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