By Mike Cherry OBE, FSB National Chairman
As I finish the year by writing my last blog of 2020, we at last have further good news with the AstraZeneca vaccine approved, and the House of Commons has just voted overwhelmingly on the so called ‘Brexit’ Bill giving clarity at last to so many small businesses.
Seeing the back of 2020 is, I’m sure, a blessed relief for many of us, but with the advent of the vaccines and a trade deal agreed with the EU we enter the new year with renewed hope, and it is worth a moment to consider not just the further challenges new areas being put into higher-level Covid restrictions present to so many, but also the opportunities which lie ahead.
While Covid-19’s health and economic effects have been devastating, the economic recovery will be heavily dependent on small businesses and the self-employed. Small firms account for 60 per cent of private sector employment in the UK, and the more that are able to come out the other side, the better it will be for jobs and growth. Throughout the crisis many have managed to pivot their businesses, showing the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship which are hallmarks of our small business community.
With the tightening of Covid restrictions in many places, FSB continues to seek further help and support for those firms and individuals so badly affected. The level of support should continue to reflect the level of restrictions and challenges. For those who were left out of the support schemes in 2020, many enter the New Year with any reserves long gone, and many more in huge amounts of debt. Without further urgent support now, the businesses they’ve worked so hard to build up remain in peril.
In terms of our future trading relationship with the EU, it is unsurprising that small business patience ran thin as deadline after deadline for a ‘deal’ passed without clarity. The important thing now is for our political leaders to focus on how to make the new reality a success for the long term. That means encouraging more small businesses to trade internationally – whether the EU or the rest of the world via new trade deals. FSB has ensured there is a Small Business Chapter in each one. But shooting for the moon requires rocket boosters, both in terms of clear guidance, and practical as well as financial support that fully reflects the needs of all our small businesses.
At home, longer-term challenges and opportunities remain. Making more progress in stamping out poor payment practices by big businesses towards their smaller suppliers and contractors would not just be right and proper, it would ease cashflow worries at a time when the difference between being paid on time and being paid late remains, for too many, the difference between a small business surviving and going under. The new Small Business Commissioner we anticipate will be getting the extra powers that we and others have been calling for early in 2021, alongside the development of tech solutions which will give corporate late payers far less of an excuse. But I also have reason to hope that many large businesses will at last begin to change their culture and poor practices, and be seen to be good, positive, and ethical businesses in this and other areas.
In the new year, FSB will be supporting the Good Business Charter – a concept established in early 2020 by Richer Sounds founder Julian Richer. We’ve been working with Julian and his team to craft a version of the charter focused for small businesses, and we will be highlighting the opportunity to sign up and help demonstrate to customers and clients that you run a good, responsible business – bringing further opportunities.
For me, I already know that small businesses are good businesses in so many ways. As the pandemic unfolded, I was taken aback by those who supported their communities – from those switching production lines to supplying much-needed face masks or ventilators to the NHS; those who switched to producing hand-sanitiser, to others giving discounts on coffees, takeaways and minicab rides for key workers.
Small businesses are at the very heart of our communities. They remain the fabric providing not only goods and services, but jobs, training, opportunities, economic growth, and – in the case of bricks-and-mortar ones - giving areas a character and difference they wouldn’t otherwise have.
We’re in a time of difficulty as well as great change and challenges, but as individuals who’ve grown our businesses, innovated, taken risks, and dealt with tough times. I firmly believe that 2021 holds some very real opportunities for many, and I wish you all a successful and happier New Year.