Thursday, November 8, 2012


During the last couple of months, I have had the opportunity to speak to Welsh entrepreneurs about the challenges facing their businesses over the next few years.

Many are heartened by the fact that inflation is falling, employment is increasing and consumer confidence is returning.

In fact, the recent economic doldrums faced by the UK economy have not dampened the opportunities for such firms in an increasingly globalised market place.

Yet, there remains a large dark cloud on the horizon that could prevent them from taking full advantage of such opportunities, namely access to capital.

Even the best businesses in Wales with enviable track records of growth and success are finding it difficult to get finance from their high street bank.

As one owner manager told me, it's like having a truck loaded up with goods to go to market and suddenly finding that your local garage won't sell you the petrol to get there, despite having an excellent credit record.

And such experiences seem to be the norm for small firms across the UK, despite recent initiatives such as the British Business Bank, which was recently launched by Vince Cable to provide up to £10 billion of finance for companies.

The Ernst and Young ITEM Club, an independent economic forecasting group, predicted earlier this week that lending to businesses will continue to decline and, by the end of this year, will have fallen to its lowest level since 2006. In fact, the levels of lending may not be back to pre-recession levels for another three years.

And the anecdotal evidence from small firms of the reluctance of banks to lend to business is supported by research which suggests that loan rejection rates from banks have increased to 38 per cent in 2012 as compared to the 11 per cent experienced between 2005 and 2008.

Given this, it is likely that the finance gap between the aspirations of growth firms and the willingness of banks to lend to them will continue to grow over the next few years.

It is estimated that the new British Business Bank will take at least 18 months to get going and even then, according to the ITEM Club, will only be able to provide half the funding required by the small to medium sized enterprise (SME) sector across the UK.

Indeed, whilst the new British Business Bank will operate at arms-length from Government and be professionally run and commercially focused, it will only provide loans through existing providers such as the high street banks.

The question is, of course, whether such access to government-backed finance will change the attitude of lenders who remain reluctant to support small firms, especially as it has been suggested that much of the new lending recorded by banks to business is merely a renegotiation of existing credit with companies.

Even small business lending programmes such as the Enterprise Finance Guarantee (ECG) scheme, where the Government guarantees up to 75 per cent of the loan, are not having the impact expected.

For example, a recent analysis of loans to small construction firms via ECG showed that only £3.5m was lent during the second quarter of 2012 as compared to £25m during the same period in 2008.

So where does this leave Welsh businesses?

Is there a better solution to enable Wales to get better funding in place for its SMEs?

I believe there is.

After creating the Welsh Enterprise Institute at the University of Glamorgan in the late 1990s, I was approached by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) to see whether we could put together a policy case for a Development Bank for Wales which would provide loans and financial support for small firms.

One of my colleagues at the time, Dr Helena Snee, produced an excellent paper which set out a clear case for an organisation along the lines of the Business Development Bank for Canada, which is mandated by the Canadian Government to promote entrepreneurship, focus on the needs of SMEs and maximise financing alternatives for businesses.

And whilst the first Welsh Government, along with the Welsh Development Agency, did not take all the recommendations from the paper on board, it did, thanks to sufficient pressure from the FSB, bring together all of the different financing schemes it managed to create Finance Wales which, of course, has gone from strength to strength since its inception.

With small firms across Wales continuing to complain of lack of access to funding to develop their businesses and having to wait until 2014 for the British Business Bank to be set up properly, will the Minister be minded to consider a Welsh solution to this issue?

In fact, should Finance Wales take the next step in its evolution to become a fully fledged Business Development Bank for Wales, along the Canadian model, and provide those companies with the ability to grow with the capital they badly require?

It would certainly be a bold move but as one that could make a real and positive difference to the potential of the Welsh business sector to grow, it is probably long overdue.