Fears over loss of local Business Links

FEARS have been expressed that plans to regionalise county-based business support services could result in vital local knowledge and links disappearing.

FEARS have been expressed that plans to regionalise county-based business support services could result in vital local knowledge and links disappearing.

Details of the East of England Development Agency's proposals for creating a new region-wide Business Link service are as yet unclear, but it has said it is looking at the option and has invited organisations to express an interest in tendering for it.

The new six-county organisation would provide local business support services to 380,000-plus small businesses in the region.

The staff within the existing Business Links are likely to be transferred into the new set-up.

Peter Button, chief executive of Business Link for Suffolk, said that they were planning to tender a bid with other partners once more information is available.

The organisation, which has run the service the past 10 years and has 43 staff, dealt with 12,600 businesses last year out of a potential 27,000 county-wide.

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“There are benefits in regionalisation, but if it goes too far, the benefits are outweighed,” he warned.

Their bid would be a mixture of centralised and local services, he said. “If the transition is not handled well, then the knowledge will fall down the cracks. That's the key issue - how the transition is handled,” he said.

If it goes ahead, the change would take effect from April 2007. Staff had been briefed, and they would work with whoever wins the tender to ensure a smooth transition, added Mr Button.

Business Link for Suffolk customer Anne Rivett MBE, managing director of Bury St Edmunds-based changing room and access control equipment supplier Helmsman, feared the change would be costly.

“It seems to be revisiting old ground as far as I'm concerned,” she said. “I suspect that it's for cost reasons rather than efficiency or effectiveness reasons. My work with Business Link for Suffolk has been highly effective.”

She feared the local knowledge, links and sensitivity to local needs the county Business Link had established could be lost.

“The focus will become a regional focus and needs will be decided on regional needs. At the moment we have a Suffolk Business Link which understands the needs of the Suffolk area. I think that will be a loss,” she said.

Richard Ellis, chairman of EEDA, said that with six different organisations running in the different counties there was presently “confusion” about the brand and, nationally, there was not a high level of recognition of it. Each outfit had its own “back office” set-up which could be brought together under a regionalised system.

“We believe public money can be better spent if we actually consolidated the back office into a regional centre, if you like,” he said. “You should see more people operating locally as a result of that change.

He added: “We do believe that by having one central system there will be much better knowledge and intelligence about what's happening.”

The board is due to decide whether to move forward with the idea at the end of February, and assuming it does, a crunch decision on which organisation should head up the regionalised set-up would be likely to be made in early summer.