Small businesses play a vital role in the health of our overall economy. But that isn’t the only way they add value to our communities and lives.
One of the annual chores I used to dread the most was taking the car for its service or MOT. Those hours awaiting the verdict – and the bill. Would it be the tyres or the tailpipe? Brake pads or big end? And yet this time was different. Not only did I leave a satisfied customer (and big end intact, you’ll be relieved to know), I left feeling uplifted about how small businesses like this local, independent garage are at the heart of their community.
This place doesn’t just sort out the creaky suspensions or cracked sumps of the neighbourhood’s cars and vans. It also works with the local school, taking in some of its most challenging pupils to engage them in the kind of skills training that could put them on the path to a good career.
It sponsors a small, local football team – doing its bit to bring the community together. The owner volunteers for a cancer charity in his spare time.
Too often, the value of businesses is judged only in pounds and pence. While the huge financial contribution small businesses make to the economy is important, it’s not the only value they bring.
They often create jobs in the local area – small firms account for 60 per cent of all private sector employment in the UK. They add to the mix of goods and services available in a particular town, village or district, making it a more attractive place to live, work or invest. And in many cases, they help to shape the character of a local area. FSB is carrying out extensive policy research to assess the contribution of small businesses to their communities.
Shaping the character of an area can be most visible when it comes to high streets and town centres. Whether it’s the local café, the hair salon, the optician or the independent fashion boutique, they all add to the rich fabric of the community they’re in.
That’s why it’s vital for smaller businesses to be supported to thrive and grow. There’s been a lot of focus recently on the challenges faced by firms on the high street, and at FSB in all four nations of the UK we have been urging political decision-makers to ease some of the burdens.
I was pleased the Government listened to us and announced a package of business rates relief targeted at small high street businesses in England. Strides
have also been taken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The business rates system is broken and out of date – and isn’t the only thing clobbering town centres and high streets – but at least these reliefs are giving traders some breathing space as costs rise and margins get squeezed.
Of course, the small business community extends beyond the high street and crosses many sectors. There are 5.6 million small businesses in the UK, employing 16.3 million people. The combined annual turnover of small firms is now £2 trillion a year.
These small businesses are the engines of local, regional and national economies. They are also, in so many ways, engines of the communities they’re in. As I know from my annual pilgrimage to the garage down the road, engines need a bit of care and support to keep them functioning at their best. Decision-makers must look after these small business engines – and not focus too much on the big end!