Regional development agency Advantage West Midlands should think again over its proposed shake-up of the Business Link system, Black Country Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ian Brough warned today.
He believes the suggested centralisation of the advice service is likely to lead to even more confusion among businesses than exists already. And he accuses the Government of being the root cause of Business Link's existing problems.
Currently advice and financial aid is distributed at a local level through the chambers of commerce. Under the new plans, due to be crystallised by next February, initial contact will be via a regional "gateway" and help offered on a sector, rather than geographical, basis. The Black Country Chamber argues that local expertise will be lost.
Mr Brough says it is Government bureaucracy which presently puts off firms - and creating a further regional layer to wade through would lead to increasing disillusionment. He believes yet another revamp will sap morale and is unnecessary.
He accuses the Government of falling for the " propaganda" that Business Links have failed when, in fact, there have been significant successes. While improvement is vital "throwing baby out with the bathwater" is not the answer.
Mr Brough said: "An important facet of the concept has to be to preserve the best delivery mechanism. All of us want to see the most efficient use of Government money and resources."
But delivery in a businessfriendly fashion was thwarted by Governmentimposed processes in the hands of civil servants fearful at possible allegations - as has happened in the past with the likes of Training and Enterprise Councils - of inappropriate or mis- spent funding.
"The risk averse attitude of the civil servants impedes delivery in a commercial fashion."
The result was it all takes too long, is designed for the public sector and not the private sector and does not encourage business investment and support for new technologies.
And, with the processes in the hands of national officials with little if any knowledge of local issues and conditions, the resulting bureaucracy of ticking boxes and ringing bells was off-putting to those who most needed aid.
"It is a remote mechanism," said Mr Brough.
It did not encourage businesses "to do what businesses do best".
You needed a nose to the ground "to determine where the money can best be deployed", he maintained.
Which is where the AWM proposals fell down.
Mr Brough charged: "We want to see the best use of local talent, local resources and local intelligence. AWM should see themselves as a facilitator, ensuring business support is delivered costeffectively. They should use the channels which currently exist and not look to recreate or re-discover what is patently in front of them.
"It is very easy to condemn Business Links but often that criticism is based on a false premise.
"The propaganda which surrounds Business Links which is promoted by the Government leads people to believe they are a panacea for all ills."
The reality was that Business Link budgets were limited and their effectiveness curtailed by regulation.
"Government is too focused on the policing role rather than the enterprise role," noted Mr Brough.
Yes, there would always be some rotten apples, but the Government "should regulate for best practice not just to restrict, tarring all businesses with the same brush".
All too often Government agencies, be it in health and safety, the environment or factory inspectors and others, "almost work negatively against business rather than support them".
This, he said, was what AWM should be working to change rather than demanding regional control.
"They should be opting for a light touch on regulation, they should have a regional input to Government, they should be taking the appropriate strategic decisions and they should ensure better support mechanisms are in place to achieve the most effective local delivery."
Business Links had done "a significant amount of good work" highlighted by the successes surrounding the Accelerate auto initiative and the outcome of the Rover Taskforce.
All too often the loudest critics failed to understand that the real opportunities and issues largely concerned the way Government structured the delivery of Business Link contracts.
The result was they became "bamboozled" - prejudiced rather than realistic in their aspirations for the service.
"We see that on a national scale," said Mr Brough. "We don't want to see it repeated on a regional scale."
He went on: "If AWM throw the baby out with the bathwater they are in danger of losing the prize. We cannot afford the West Midlands to fall down the efficiency league table."