Between the lines with Kent Business associate editor Trevor Sturgess
Prime Minister David Cameron grabbed the headlines this month over his pledge to slash 3,000 pieces of red tape.
However, Labour’s commitment to a US-style Small Business Administration might prove more significant in the longer run.
Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the engine of growth behind rising gross domestic product and falling jobless numbers, as 100 delegates at the first Federation of Small Businesses’ policy conference heard.
President Obama put small business at the heart of his government and Chuka Umunna – the shadow business secretary – is onto something with his commitment to a UK small business administration.
Even if Labour fails to regain power, the election winner is likely to copy the idea.
The UK has five million small enterprises, Kent and Medway tens of thousands. They have huge economic – and political – influence and small enterprise deserves a seat in the cabinet, not just as part of Vince Cable’s wide portfolio.
Well done to the FSB, with more than 6,000 members in Kent and Medway, for a high-profile event which showed it wants to compete with its influential big business counterpart the CBI.
Over coffee and bacon butties at the Bull, Wrotham, members and media shared the London experience in a televised web link.
It was a good move to broadcast it to FSB groups nationwide.
Matt Hobbs, director of Maidstone-based creative agency We Are Tangerine, welcomed the conference but placed little faith in politicians.
“It’s all words,” he said.
Graham Taylor, an engraving specialist from Tunbridge Wells, said: “This is giving a much better profile for the FSB.”
They both complained about the main banks and their lending practices. Both found them less than helpful when they wanted loans to buy new premises.
So they looked elsewhere.
“Had we gone to a bank, I think there would have been difficulties,” said Mr Hobbs.
Mr Taylor preferred a less onerous personal loan.
Jeff Randall, one of the best business journalists, chaired the FSB conference.
He recalled that his father had run a small enterprise but he himself had never found the courage to set up on his own, preferring “the comfort of a regular salary from a well-heeled employer”.
That goes for many experts and politicians who speak out on entrepreneurship. They have not felt the gain – and pain.
I share Randall’s admiration for entrepreneurs – people like those in our county – with “vision, courage and stamina to face the daily challenge of being an independent operator”.
As I’m now a freelance media person, I begin to feel the liberation that running your own business can bring.
But I guess that’s in the good times. Faced with unethical late payment, cashflow issues, economic uncertainty and bank intransigence, that feeling might just evaporate.
Building on many years of success
Viewers of BBC Four will have seen a series of documentaries featuring the UK’s oldest firms, including the Brasted-based R Durtnell and Sons construction business, founded in 1591.
What an achievement! Many properties it built more than 400 years ago still stand today.
The oldest of these which still survives is Poundsbridge Manor, just outside Penshurst, built in 1593.
Today, the firm has a turnover of more than £50m and employs more than 130 full-time staff.
But we also celebrate Rochester Bridge Trust, an amazing 614 years old.
Recruitment agency New Appointments Group marks 39 years in business, the Wisdom Hospice in Rochester opened 30 years ago, the same year Chatham naval dockyard closed.
Kent really is a county of well run organisations, steeped in history.
Plan to say yes, not no
Reading a local newspaper (not a KM Group one, I hasten to add), I was struck by the number of stories about local opposition to development plans. Reflex hostility is not helpful, putting a damper on those who dare to dream.
Of course we wish to protect our Garden of England but saying no to everything is irresponsible and selfish. We need jobs and homes, and they have to go somewhere.
I appreciate some proposed developments like the monstrous Kent International Gateway (KIG) project near Maidstone – thankfully turned down – was inappropriate. But a well-landscaped M20 Junction 8 business park will keep two major employers in the county and create jobs.
Maidstone Council should back it, however loud the protest.
And a well-planned garden suburb – now high up the political agenda – in mid-Kent should not be dismissed.
All at sea
The Competition Commission got it wrong when they said fares could rise if Eurotunnel kept its ship-leasing stake in MyFerryLink.
Having a third player on the cross-Channel route keeps fares down.
I know there are issues over possible subsidy to the French co-op running MyFerryLink – mainly former employees of the defunct SeaFrance operation – and Eurotunnel’s ownership of the Chunnel.
But killing off MyFerryLink or dispatching it west, is – perversely – bad for short sea competition.
However, it must stand on its own financially and not receive any subsidy from Eurotunnel.
The three operators – with P&O and DFDS – must all compete fairly on the open market, and if one goes to the wall, so be it.