The small business column from the Region Chair of FSB NI, Brendan Kearney
Brendan has been self-employed for the last 42 years mainly across the catering industry. For the past seven years he has led a private medical insurance brokerage and currently employs 17 people Brendan has been involved with the FSB over the last 20 plus years at various levels between branch, policy and regional levels within the organisation. This month Brendan talks about the role of local councils in creating the optimum environment for small businesses to succeed and the importance of electing the best people to deliver the needs of the sector.
Ask not what you can do for your Council…
We are only a matter of weeks away from the Local Government Elections here in Northern Ireland. A time to exercise our civic duty and vote for representatives who are at the grassroots level of politics, a time when the numerous candidates across the 11 councils set out their stall with plans of what they will do for the local community and the various sectors within. A time when there is much rhetoric of change and positive visions for the future…but how do we feel about politics right now?
Rumblings on the ground suggest that Mr and Mrs Bloggs are suffering from “Brexit-fatigue” and the term “meaningful vote” has had its impact on people wondering what happened to their “meaningful votes” in the Stormont elections – some people asking what is the point of voting anymore when local services, schools, hospitals seem to be suffering from the lack of navigation by those who they voted for.
But it is still essential for our families, our local communities and our small business sector that people continue to exercise their democratic right and have their voice counted in the forthcoming local elections and subsequent elections. Without voting can you complain down the line about failures to deliver or praise initiatives that have worked well? Without voting can you ensure that the issues that affect you and your business most are brought to the fore? Without voting can you feel reassured that your locality is in the hands of individuals that you can trust to make good choices for you and your business?
When we look at some of the areas local councils have responsibility for it is obvious that SMEs rely on positive and dynamic individuals to take on the role of Councillor to voice the needs and asks of the small business community when it comes to local authority planning, forecasting and budgeting. When the canvassers come to the door of your small business, you should ask their personal ideas and party policies, and the impact they would have on your daily life and to the running of your business.
Councils currently have responsibility for planning, services, local economic development, tourism, off-street parking, environmental health, heritage to name a few…most, if not all of these have some part to play in the operations of your business – so businesses must input into those functions through the candidate they choose to elect. We must become less of the armchair commentators and keyboard warriors and make a tangible demand that those we elect have small business to the forefront of their mind. Northern Ireland is a small business economy, SMEs are the biggest employers and so the environment in which we run our business must work positively to support and grow our sector.
We hear from members about the difficulty of competing for council tenders and getting into the local council supply chain and we know from research on Prompt Payment within the 11 authorities that there are late payment issues which must be addressed. In 2017-18 in Northern Ireland only 48% of invoices were paid within 10 working days by the local councils and 17% of invoices were still not paid after 30 calendar days. Our local councils should be institutes of best practice in all areas of governance and operation and must be held to account when their practices are not of a standard, particularly where it impacts the development of small businesses in local communities.
Our members often cite difficulties in planning issues and how this can hinder their growth and development and thus economic activity within the council area. An efficient planning service is a number one ask and has the potential to change the economic landscape of a local area. It shouldn’t be as difficult as it is for small businesses to fulfil their potential through a more positive and streamlined planning process within council.
FSB will be putting together a local government manifesto prior to the elections making recommendations on behalf of the small business sector in Northern Ireland. We will look at the many ways in which councils can further support and encourage SME development and growth, not least within their various enterprise training schemes and programmes such as “Go For It”.
I implore that you consider carefully your choices on the 2nd of May, make demands from candidates to secure your vote and hold to account the Councillors who should be working to your favour in the decisions and plans they can influence and make. It is in everyone’s interest that small businesses survive and flourish and with the current absence of Stormont, local government has an even more important part to play to ensure Northern Ireland has a prosperous economy and a society which is positive for everyone who lives and works within it.