Some fundamental questions need to be asked in the current policy environment. The government is making decisions based on some not very clearly articulated assumptions. As someone who started working in a business support organisation in the mid 1980s, under a previous Conservative government, in a recession and amidst public sector funding cuts, I have been reflecting on this for some time.
In the 1980s I worked for a local Co-operative Development
Agency (CDA) funded by four local authorities. Central
government funded a National CDA to promote co-operatives,
especially conversions of traditional businesses. At the same time local enterprise agencies
were established, to provide business advice for start up small businesses, particularly aimed at helping people who were unemployed to create their own jobs. We had access to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme (EAS) that paid you £40 per week for a year if you started your own business and you could earn as much as you could make on top of that. This provided a cushion for people who would otherwise never have thought about starting a business.
Jobs - it was all about jobs. There were 3 million unemployed and the Conservative government, one that was busy dismantling public services, was paying for it all. The view was that it was in the public - and the government's - interest to get people off the dole and into work. When our CDA closed in 1991 there were over 50 co-operatives trading in Norfolk and Waveney. Research at that time made the case that where there was a CDA, there were co-ops.
Over the intervening period business support has been
professionalised and there are now qualifications, accreditation
and quality standards in place. Social Enterprise
networks and Business Adviser Networks have endeavoured to ensure that those with genuine expertise are put forward to advise people wanting to start or grow a social enterprise.
Fast forward to 2012. The Coalition has decreed that there
will be no publicly funded business support. Business Link
has closed. The few CDAs that have managed to survive as
social enterprise support agencies, are in danger of disappearing,
where is the
support coming from? Well, apparently from a network of 40,000 volunteer business mentors managed by the British Bankers' Association So, we want to know, are they trained business advisers? Are they qualified? Do they have indemnity insurance in case they offer bad advice? Are they going to be there when the business needs support, or when they have time to do a bit of mentoring? How much support will they be prepared to
Some specialist social enterprise support organisations such as
my own are trying to find ways of getting paid for our time and
expertise, but no one in the 30 years has
succeeded in making money out of providing support to start up businesses. In the meantime people who are least able to take personal risks to set up businesses that could create real social benefits are left to their own devices. They are picking up what advice they can without knowing if it is good or bad - and some of it is highly questionable. And the only game in town is once again co-operative development. The Co-op Group (the bit that runs the banks, the shops and the insurance company) is investing in the Co-operative
Enterprise Hub, offering four days of free support to potential co-operative businesses. It's not much, but it's all we've got.