Baroness Kramer: Focus on small businesses to get the economy moving

Susan Kramer - Some rights reserved by David SpenderI have previously highlighted some of Baroness (Susan) Kramer’s excellent House of Lords speeches on the economy here on Lib Dem Voice. There follows, courtesy of Lords Hansard, an extract from another speech she gave on Tuesday to the House in a debate on economic growth, urging the government to focus on small and medium size businesses, by whom the vast majority of people are employed:

I would like to add something slightly different to this debate, because as a doer and deliverer I am going to ask him if he might be willing to think small. We have such a bent in this country for looking at the large – the large business, the grand projects and the big banks – while we neglect the heartland of our economy. SMEs as a sector, not just in the UK but overall in the EU, account for all of our new job creation. That is not just in tough times such as these; it has also been true in the years of prosperity. New start-ups and small businesses are absolutely key to our growth and we have an enviable range of SMEs in the UK. Some 20% of all the SMEs in the EU are in this country. I do not think that registers on the general consciousness.

I recognise that this Government have taken steps to strengthen small businesses, from tax breaks to investors through the EIS, regulatory preferences, new support through UKTI and Funding for Lending. However, let me suggest that it is not enough and not brought into a coherent strategy and programme. The problems of SMEs are incredibly granular. I listened yesterday to Xavier Rolet of the LSE talking about the problems of raising equity for SMEs, in large part because all the rules are a scaled-down version of those written for blue-chip companies, rather than being designed for the small players.

I am on the SME Select Committee on exports, where I hear about the problems of protecting intellectual property for small exporters, especially for SMEs that decide to try to export to the BRICs. Again and again, this House has heard the complaint that small companies and microcompanies cannot access credit from the traditional banks. We lack those networks that supply such credit in successful countries, such as the community development finance institutions in the USA and the Sparkassen in Germany. This list could go on for several pages; I suspect that in today’s debate many more issues concerning SMEs will have been raised.

There is no point in trying to tackle this as a piecemeal add-on to various different policies in different departments. I wish that the Government would consider having a dedicated team working across departments, going through obstacle by obstacle with the single mandate of releasing growth in our SME sector. Frankly, the big guys can take over themselves; this is where we can make change and with small companies, small changes make an immediate impact. We all know what the impact on jobs would be if SMEs which were planning to expand, perhaps to hire just one more person, did it six months earlier than they had originally planned. The gain that we can get, with its impact on growth, could be tremendous if we agree to focus.

I move into the area of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, by referring to small infrastructure. I am very supportive of the big infrastructure projects such as HS2. There is a whole range of them. We have neglected infrastructure in this country; I would not argue with that. However, as many people have said, large infrastructure has a long lead time and I want to make a plea for small infrastructure projects. In the Local Government Finance Act 2012, the Government put in place the legal framework for tax increment financing though a structure known as TIF1. This would allow local authorities to receive part of the uplift in business rates resulting from new infrastructure and, on that promise, to obtain the financing to enable those projects to go ahead in the first place. A perfect arrangement, your Lordships might think, for transport links to enable a new industrial park or for an opportunity to finance key housing.

This is not the time to go through the details of the legislation but, in effect, what the Government did was to give with the one hand, by creating the framework for TIF1. They then took away all the potential by severely limiting the period during which local authorities could capture those business rate increases. The argument is about general accounting and the relationship with the Treasury, and whatever else, but given that we need growth this is absolute madness. Just about every local authority in the country will have a few good, but small, infrastructure projects that would stimulate economic development locally. We need those to be breaking ground and I urge the Government to go back and capture that low-hanging fruit of small, local infrastructure projects which could feed quickly into growth.

Lastly, on small lending, this House is well aware that we are quite unique in the developed world in having so much of our banking service dominated by five huge players, all of them so like each other that few individuals or businesses ever bother to move their accounts, despite high levels of dissatisfaction. Everyone recognises that competition for these banks is one of the best ways to challenge what became a tainted culture and a lack of focus on the customer. But while new, big players may have a role, I want to argue for change to include a network of small players. This means community banks, specialist small business banks, crowd funders, peer-to-peer lenders and credit unions-in other words, to have real variety and choice capable of meeting much wider needs than our banks currently meet.

A lot of the enabling legislation is now in place, but to take it from a possibility and a theory to reality, recognition, action and support from our Government and our regulators are needed. It makes for a messier world but, I would argue, a more stable, capable and honest one. That is the argument that I would like to put to the Minister. Of course he must act on large projects and, with infrastructure, they would be a large part of his plate. Will he look at the small and the quick? We need economic growth now, not in 10 or 15 years’ time. It seems to me that we have many quick wins of which we are not taking advantage.

* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.

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