With a major shake-up of how enterprise is promoted in the West Midlands due to be announced next week, Steve Walker, chief executive of ART (Aston Reinvestment Trust), calls for greater co-operation among those offering support in the region...
Buried in the small print of Gordon Brown's Budget there was a pledge to drastically cut the number of business support schemes in the UK.
The current system, Mr Brown claims, confuses those businesses looking for help.
I could not agree more. Simplification is not only overdue, it is vital if we are to encourage much-needed commercial and social enterprise to flourish in the West Midlands.
At the moment, we have a situation that confuses not just those who are trying to find support, but those who are trying to deliver it!
Public sector support for enterprise in Birmingham and the West Midlands is regrettably disjointed, lack-ing in direction and proper management.
This is particularly true when dealing with businesses in the poorer, deprived, areas in the region.
It is the case despite widespread recognition that supporting business start-ups, as well as encouraging job creation and preservation in existing businesses, is key to economic and social regeneration.
One of the common criticisms I hear about business support - both for this region and the UK as a whole - is that the service is patchy.
This is hardly surprising as resources are split between a variety of funders and departments.
While it may be right that business support focuses on areas and groups that need it most, it is also evident that such an approach - as can now be seen in other aspects of public service delivery - makes for a fragmented service.
This leaves both businesses, and those offering support, finding it increasingly difficult to find their way through a complex system.
The situation is made worse by a failure on the part of those who control the flow of funds - Advantage West Midlands, the regional Government Office, Learning and Skills Council and local authorities - to agree shared objectives and help those offering support to work together effectively.
All too often, rather than dealing with the problem, the public sector is guilty of developing strategies without actually acting on them.
This is not the way to reduce confusion or offer entrepreneurs comprehensive support. Advantage West Midlands currently has the lead role for business support and needs to be clear about how enterprise in the region should be supported.
This would improve the chances of the private sector working alongside the public sector to fund such projects.
Having worked for an organisation that provides finance for enterprise in Birmingham and North Solihull for the past nine years, I know that finance on its own isn't enough. Businesses also need access to good quality, and appropriate, business support if they are to navigate through the many challenges they face and maximise their opportunities. A business support framework for the West Midlands will be announced next week by AWM, to start in 2007.
For businesses, the key issues will be: what services will be available, who will deliver them and what they will cost.
It is my fervent hope that whoever gets the job of implementing the new framework learns from past mistakes.
I am sure I will not be alone, as I wait for the announcement, in hoping for s implicity, adequate resources and, above all, joined-up action.
* Steve Walker is a member of the National Small Business Investment Task Force and is also a member of the Regional Finance Forum at Advantage West Midlands