Learning from the story of Business Link
April 18, 2012
What went wrong with Business Link? Elliot Forte looks back on its rise and fall and examines whether latest attempts by government to support businesses are any more likely to succeed
On 25 November 2011, the coalition government closed the Business Link Advisory Service. This event hardly registered a blip on the radar of the national, or even local, press. The closure was not unexpected. After all, the service had been under fairly sustained public attack by politicians, press and partners since the publication of the Conservative sponsored Richard Report in 2008 (the blueprint for the current laissez-faire policy and the new business support landscape).
I had just committed six months of life to researching and writing a history of Business Link and analysis of small business policy. I had also spent a fairly uncomfortable session interviewing Lord Heseltine, the founder of Business Link himself. So, to be honest, the fact no one else seemed to care took me by surprise. But then, the chancellor George Osborne himself had already issued his edict that ‘those who oppose these reforms are the forces of stagnation, that would commit our country to decline’ (not exactly inviting a balanced open debate).
I spent over 15 years working as an adviser at Business Link and would be the first to acknowledge the service was far from perfect. I would also be quick to recognise that Tony Blair’s obsession for measurement and league tables had created doubt regarding the official performance figures. But even if you believed the numbers had been cooked up (and I have never seen or found any factual evidence to suggest they were), the sheer scale of contact was difficult to dispute.
Business Link served millions of small businesses for a generation. It was the largest single engagement of the small business market in history. Even in the final year of operation, in the face of negative press and scaled back activity, the data suggested over 500,000 customers had asked for help. That figure is more than the combined membership of the Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry.