When I put my name forward to be South West of England policy lead for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) my first thought was: what does a ‘policy lead’ do? I will try my best to answer that.
To start with, I am not sure policy is the right word as the dictionary definition is ‘a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual’. I don’t think that gets to the heart of the matter as what we are talking about here are business issues. What factors influence the way we do business in the South West? What makes it harder? Or easier? What should be done to make it easier for us to succeed and support our communities? I see my role as helping to answer these questions and turning those answers into actions.
At a recent meeting of South West FSB activists I asked what three issues most affected members. The top three answers were almost identical from all corners of our region. These were, in no particular order, broadband/mobile communications, transport infrastructure, and education/skills.
Despite investment in recent years, broadband speed and availability remains an issue and as more SMEs embrace digital elements even more are affected. Speeds are often below those advertised and even neighbouring businesses can receive dramatically different outcomes. Mobile connectivity can also be a big issue - particularly in rural areas. Tradespeople can find huge challenges keeping in contact with clients on the move and you can forget receiving mobile credit card payments when even a 3G connection is often a luxury!
Transport infrastructure issues are familiar to all of us in the South West. High speed trains - what are those? Many of us outside the bigger towns and cities would be happy to have even a steam-powered service. Car users are often no better off. LEPs have made much-needed investments in some key roads but the rest of the network is suffering from under-investment and a lack of maintenance. Car parking charges are also a growing issue particularly for high street businesses in market towns. Some cash-strapped Local Authorities have seen car parks as a source of revenue to top-up budgets, without considering the impact on local business - Wiltshire Council being the most recent example.
With major investment projects like Hinkley Point dominating the recruitment market it is also harder for small businesses to recruit skilled staff. Companies now have to invest far more time and money training employees - even for entry-level positions. The focus in our education system on academic achievement poses a challenge to the employment market as it is often skills and experience, such as those gained through apprenticeships or practical qualification, which are most sought after.
These are by no means the only challenges faced by South West SMEs but I believe they are a good place to start. Small businesses have always been at the heart of our communities, let’s all do our best to keep them there.
Iain Wallis is the FSB South West Policy Chair. His business is based in Devizes, Wiltshire.