Podcast: Small Business Support: Can it be Effective, Highly Visible and Respected?

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In our latest podcast, Dr Juliane Schwarz talks to Professor Mart Hart, Deputy Director of the Enterprise Research Centre and Professor of Small Business and Entrepreneurship at Aston Business School, about business support in England.

This podcast was inspired by the Birmingham Economic Review 2022.

The annual Birmingham Economic Review is produced by City-REDI, University of Birmingham and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and a high-quality resource for informing research, policy and investment decisions.

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The podcast covered the following topics:

What are the best approaches and methods for business support? Are there particular approaches that work best?

There is no magic bullet or one resource that works perfectly. We need to build an ecosystem of support which gives resources to a range of support mechanisms and the organisations involved in the task. Business support should be joined up in its approach and bring continuity across the whole pipeline.

Why has Aston Business School been so successful in its approach to Business Support?

It has taken a long time to get to this point, nearly a decade, with continued buy-in from senior management. The approach from Aston Business School is defined by engagement with business. The faculty engage directly through workshops etc with businesses in the region.

How do you incorporate career progression for your research and academic staff?

It is an ongoing battle. Undergraduate teaching is the priority, that’s what pays people’s wages and that’s what dominates these discussions. How to recognise other important activities is a very complex discussion at most universities.

How did the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business programme come about?

In 2011, Goldman Sachs was looking for a University in the Midlands to host their programme. Mark’s work with NESTA on high-growth firms made him a good candidate to develop and launch the programme.

What will be the legacy of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) now they are gone?

The LEPs faced many problems from the outset:

  • There were too many of them around the country, they lacked muscle and were underfunded.
  • They had overly complicated funding models, and it was not clear who was their master.
  • They didn’t necessarily fit well into regional governance structures which caused local authority disputes.
  • Despite these issues, there were successes around the country.
  • We are now potentially moving into an even more complicated and granular situation. We need big government decisions to sort this out.
Do you get an impression that West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) know what they’re dealing with and that they are prepared for the challenge ahead?

The WMCA definitely understands what is needed, but the challenge will be what happens if the money doesn’t arrive from central government. How do you run these programmes with reduced or no funding? There is a huge amount of political uncertainty right now. If a new government came in, irrespective of who wins, it would allow important decisions to be made, but right now business support is in stasis.

What would you say to the government right now about business support? What do they need to do?

The Help to Grow programme is doing its job and needs continuing support. There needs to be more focus on micro-enterprises as they are a vital cog of the economy and are often important contractors to larger businesses which wouldn’t function without them. There needs to be a scale-up of many of the programmes that are running now, like the catapults and the work of Innovate UK. Lean into what is working now. There also needs to be more of a focus on sectors that aren’t shiny and new. Fintech, Biotech and Life Sciences are important but if you want to create productivity growth you need to focus on all sectors.

What would need to change to make business support highly visible, effective, and most of all respected by the private sector in England?

Longevity, consistency, and resources are all important. In Northern Ireland, business support has been provided by the same organisations for a long time, so businesses know where to go when they need support. They are well funded so they can raise awareness of their work, and businesses know who to engage with. In England, there is a constantly changing environment with new programmes springing up all the time.

Listen the podcast 

Transcription – Small Business Support in England

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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