Personally - and on behalf of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) - I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and prosperous new year.
Though while we welcome in the New Year, I am conscious that we also usher in a number of challenges, and opportunities. All of which need to be addressed as a matter of increasing urgency.
By way of context, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of small non-financial firms grew 9 per cent to 2.4 million during 2017. This serves as a timely reminder that the success of the UK economy depends on its small businesses.
So now that we are into the New Year, I hope that we will see new actions to support this growing community of wealth creators. After all, against a backdrop of rising prices, flagging consumer demand and Brexit uncertainty, small business owners are in need of all the support they can get.
For example, small firms are looking for an end to the business rates chaos that’s engulfed them last year.
Inflation is running above target at around 3%, so we need support for the UK’s small firms as they battle rising costs and flagging consumer demand.
The Bank of England is now starting to increase interest rates, so firms could become even more reluctant to seek finance for growth, hampering their long term output.
It is also worrying that confidence among small retailers has been in negative territory for some time.
Meanwhile, the continuing trade deficit also shows that work needs to be done to encourage the UK’s small businesses to trade overseas. In fact, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) research shows that just one in five small businesses currently exports – but that with the right support that figure could double.
Plus, of course, we have Brexit to deal with. The focus must now shift to the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world. There must be no cliff-edge moment on Brexit day, but instead an orderly, time-limited transition period so that small firms only have one set of rule changes. The final deal must have as few barriers to trade as possible.
That includes clarity about the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa. FSB has pushed both the UK and EU to agree a low-cost, simple registration system, because as we leave the EU, small businesses will need to continue to be able to find the workers and skills that they require now and in the future.
These are all, but by no means the only, big issues that need to be tackled in 2018 and beyond. I am pleased to report that FSB has the ear of Government and we will continue to be a constructive, if challenging partner as the UK determines its domestic and overseas business and trade policies.
The 5.7 million small businesses that make up more than 99 per cent of the UK’s business stock rightly expect this to be the case. I am determined that we will not let them down!
Ray Hickinbottom, FSB West Midlands Chairman