A new vision for small businesses in Wales?

Andy Atkinson looks at a new Welsh Conservative offer for small businesses.

It’s a big claim to want to lead the most small-business friendly government Wales has ever seen, but as we prepare to launch our small business strategy today, we are putting small Welsh firms at the heart of our economic strategy.

Wales – we are so often told – is a nation of small businesses after all, and SMEs make up 98 per cent of all businesses in Wales; providing jobs for more than 524,000 people.

From restaurants, to local shops, builders and pubs, we depend on them totally to make our communities the diverse and vibrant places they are.

Despite their unparalleled importance to the Welsh economy, they are served very poorly when it comes to Welsh Government support. Underrepresented in policy and public procurement, and struggling to access finance – their needs are all too often not met. There isn’t a level playing field for them in terms of business rates and Welsh Government support can at times appear to be skewed in favour of larger firms with less of a vested interest in Wales. That’s certainly the perception of many of the businesses with whom I have met.

Welsh Conservatives have a long standing commitment to supporting our small businesses and we can see that in order for our economy to thrive, we need to make some simple but effective adjustments to the way things are done here in Wales.

A Welsh Conservative Government would place small businesses and their needs at the heart of Welsh Government thinking. We’d do this by establishing a “small business hub” to carry out small business ‘proofing’, which would assess all Welsh Government policies for their impact upon small businesses. Drawn from existing Economy department resources, this dedicated team would report annually to the National Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee – ensuring that the voice of small businesses was at the epicentre of economic development in Wales.

It all comes as part of a comprehensive support package designed to stimulate growth for indigenous small firms.

Small businesses across Wales always say that access to finance is one of their biggest challenges; and can prevent growth. Finance Wales needs major reform – and that’s why Welsh Conservatives want to regionalise, and personalise, access to finance across the nation – making locally-guided decisions on funding awards; stimulating our communities and offering a more accessible, approachable funding source for our small business owners.

Alongside this, we will extend business rate relief. Currently business rate relief extends to businesses with a rateable value of up to £6,000. We would take this further; doubling the threshold to provide business rate relief for all small business with a rateable value of up to £12,000 – tapered thereafter to the value of £15,000.

We will also create a level playing field for our most smallest companies by splitting the Welsh business rates multiplier. At present the business rates system in Wales does not take into consideration the size of a firm, which we believe is unfair. Our plans would set a level playing field on business rates, reducing the amount of taxes paid by smaller firms through a modest increase in the contribution made by our larger firms.

Another key commitment that we have put forward today is to deliver universal broadband and mobile coverage across rural Wales by 2019. We should never underestimate how vital a resource a reliable internet connection is in today’s global market, and if we are to truly champion Welsh businesses, they need to be able to make their presence known online. Currently, however, many businesses in the hinterlands of Wales are unable to do this, putting them at a massive disadvantage.

Firstly, we would reform the planning system for telecommunications infrastructure to make it easier to upgrade existing sites, and to develop new ones – infrastructure is key after all. But there are also a number of ways in which take-up of existing broadband facilities could be improved; take-up of Superfast Cymru has been frustratingly slow, with just 17% of homes with access to superfast broadband having installed it within a year. Just 0.6% of the scheme’s budget has been allocated to demand stimulation.

Ultimately, small businesses are the lifeblood of the Welsh economy – but they need a Government that is prepared to prioritise them, and offer them more support. Wales has the highest vacancy rate of any UK nation – at 15.6%. In Newport – where, today, my Party launches these plans – over a quarter of shops sit vacant. We believe that the Welsh Labour Government are failing to provide our small businesses with the support they need –  and Wales deserves better.

If every small business in Wales took on just one extra member of staff, unemployment in Wales would be wiped out. I’m proud that my Party want to unleash Wales’ entrepreneurial spirit, back those prepared to take a risk; and set a level playing field with a Government that truly is the most small-business friendly administration ever.

Andy Atkinson is Welsh Conservative candidate for Wrexham, and Chairman of the Wrexham Town Centre Forum Steering Group.

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