What the future holds for Business Links

A year into Government and the Business Links scheme Labour inherited – where enterprise agencies bring together small businesses and advise on corporate strategy – continues to baffle much of its intended clientele.

However, a report by the initiative’s monitor and policy adviser The Design Council shows customer satisfaction levels for its design advisory service rose considerably in 1997. On top of that Labour has set measures rolling to improve the service and clarity of communication of the scheme.

Design forms an important part of the Business Links’ remit making it a valuable potential resource for design consultancies. The 89 Business Links occupy 240 offices across the UK. The first of these went live in 1993.

While there have been some good reports of the scheme to date, many feel it has yet to overcome its teething troubles and provide a satisfactory service across the board.

The problem lies in the mismatch between the perception of Business Links as a unified organisation and the reality of its 89 independent operations. This has left design groups unsure where to go for help in generating business or advice, and what kind of service to expect.

To make matters more confusing, around 40 per cent of Business Links have merged with or are subsidiaries of either a Training and Enterprise Council, or a Chamber of Commerce, or both. Under these arrangements, the Business Links remain independent and continue to be funded by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Small firms minister Barbara Roche recognises the need for standardisation and is working to correct the matter. In her vision statement last year she pledged to introduce measures to bring consistency to the service (DW 12 September 1997).

Since then a nationwide video-conferencing service has been launched to provide small firms with local access to the Business Links network and the Government has just started working to introduce league tables. These aim to measure the effectiveness of the links.

“We are gathering impact assessment figures but it will take about two years to gather them and test if the scheme is feasible,” says a Business Links spokesman.

Other pledges are still in the pipeline. One, to establish centres of expertise where Business Links would specialise, could see a centre dedicated to design, according to a Business Links spokesman.

Meanwhile, the DTI is working on a framework for developing Business Links boards.

And the means of testing these measures? A customer complaints hotline is currently being put in place and will go live shortly.

Mark Beckett

To clear up any misunderstandings, Margaret Beckett is both President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. While her special responsibilities lie with science and industry, she is supportive of the design sector, with a high-profile presence in the industry.

She is also on the record as saying that ‘creativity and design are of fundamental importance to the development of world class products and services which help businesses to secure a competitive edge’. And she has backed this up by attending two of the highest profile events in the design industry in the last year.

Beckett made the opening speech at last October’s Design in Business Week and was integral to the Powerhouse:UK exhibition held last month to showcase talent.

Meanwhile, as shadow trade and industry secretary she headed an initiative to involve business figures more in the party’s business policies. This concentrated on six areas, one of them resulted in the design and innovation task force. This led to Beckett working with Terence Conran and Design Council design director Sean Blair (DW 9 February 1996).

Beckett has been an MP for Derby South since 1983. She was MP for Lincoln between 1974 and 1979.

Barbara Roche

As small firms minister Barbara Roche has a girthy remit. She is responsible for Business Links, regional policy, Regional Selective Assistance, Structural Funds, communications and information industries and deregulation within the Department of Trade and Industry.

Of these, her role as captain of Business Links – the scheme whereby enterprise agencies bring together small businesses – is probably the most important to the design industry. The programme places specific emphasis on design, exporting and information technology. In opposition Roche was a firm advocate of the importance of the Business Links scheme and the need to reform it. In office she has pushed the initiative forward.

Roche went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and worked as a lawyer in London. She was elected MP for Hornsey and Wood Green in 1992 and promoted to the Whips Office in 1994. She became shadow minister for small business in 1995 before taking over from Conservative incumbent Richard Page last May.

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