Brexit SMEs

COMMENTARY: Post-Brexit uncertainties need to be mitigated by practical measures to help small business

Three months on from the EU referendum, and the underlying mood in the business community seems to have moved from shock to stoicism.

The Brexiteers took us down a road paved with worthless promises without a map for where we would go once we reached the cross-roads. It may all work out, but it’s likely we will wander round in circles for some time yet.

Most SME owners are, meanwhile, continuing to do what they usually do: aim high and work hard, but have a plan B in case the economy hits some Brexit buffers.

Earlier this month, I attended a meeting between representatives from creative businesses and the Welsh Office minister Guto Bebb to discuss the implications of leaving the EU.

The concerns were practical, ranging from what it would mean for crewing big film productions to the impact on infrastructure investments that require stakeholder communications of the kind Freshwater delivers.

All of us were concerned about uncertainty and how it affects our ability to make the micro decisions that cumulatively have a big impact on jobs and growth. 

For the best part of two hours, the minister listened carefully, and his adviser took copious notes, but he could not offer much in the way of firm answers and was honest enough not to pretend otherwise.

On a macro level, the Bank of England’s new £435 billion quantitative easing programme has predictably gone the way of its predecessors in inflating share prices but doing precious little else.

Since Mark Carney announced the move in August, the FTSE 100 has risen nearly 300 points to hit highs not seen since the record levels reached around the time of the 2015 general election.

This is all well and good if you have a big share portfolio, but don’t expect much of it to trickle down to the real economy.

Of more direct value to SMEs, pound for pound, are two Welsh Government initiatives; namely: to continue to operate a business rates relief scheme indefinitely in some form and to transform Finance Wales into a Development Bank for Wales.

The existing £98m rates relief scheme has been extended to 2017-18, giving thousands of small businesses certainty that they will either pay no rates or enjoy a discount for nearly two years. After that, the Welsh Government will introduce an ‘improved’ scheme making relief permanent.

Alongside this, it’s good to hear that plans for the long-mooted Development Bank for Wales are taking shape. Economy Secretary Ken Skates says he has now received a fully-costed business plan from Finance Wales and expects the bank to be up and running in the second half of next year.

The bank will inherit the recently-launched £136m Wales Business Fund, which includes both EU money - despite the Brexit vote – and an estimated legacy of more than £30m from its forerunner, the JEREMIE fund.   

Some have criticised Finance Wales for charging relatively high interest rates, but the success of JEREMIE in generating a surplus for recycling into other promising investments shows how operating a fund on sound business principles can be for the greater good.

Finance Wales’s interest rates reflect its role as a lender of last resort, often stepping in when commercial banks have either turned their backs or capped their risk.

The Wales Business Fund will continue to price debt for risk, using a range of rates, while also offering equity funding. Any company based in Wales, or willing to relocate to Wales, with fewer than 250 employees can apply for investments of up to £2m.

While all this is very welcome, the Welsh Government should also look at how it can help SMEs improve their cash flow through prompt payment.

During the recession, the public sector introduced 10-day payment to its suppliers. The trouble was that major government contractors often pocketed the money while still paying their own suppliers outrageously slowly.

The Welsh Government could be part of the solution to late payment – which deprives SMEs of literally billions at any given time – by simply refusing to buy from companies that do not pay their own suppliers on time.

As credit checks are standard in procurement, this would not even involve extra paperwork – yet it would make a huge difference in these uncertain times.

Steve Howell


This article is Steve’s monthly business column for WalesOnline and the Western Mail newspaper.

Steve Howell is chief executive of Freshwater UK, the Cardiff-headquartered communications consultancy, and author of Over The Line, a novel set in the steroid underworld of South Wales. Available in bookshops and via Amazon. Follow him on Twitter: @FromSteveHowell


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