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Business Link: never fit for purpose

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The announcement that Business Link was going to be wound down, as we revealed exclusively yesterday, has stirred up a huge amount of emotion – more than any of us expected. But the truth is, Business Link was never fit for purpose – it was a lottery.

Most of the people who commented on our story accept that something needed to give. Business Link’s return on investment was just not good enough. Sometimes you got a great consultant, but often you ended up more confused and lost than you were before getting in touch with Business Link. Its £190m annual budget was not an example of taxpayers’ money being put to best use.

Do we think the £190m is too high a price to pay for Business Link’s service? Yes, we do, as ultimately, Business Link is trying to offer a service that is already largely covered by the private sector – which also tends to do it much better.

We do accept that Business Link does offer good advice sometimes, and it does have some very good consultants. But overall, many businesses are left disappointed at the Business Link service, calling it a waste of money or time.

Recent research by the Central Office of Information revealed that each visit to the Business Link website (businesslink.gov.uk – run by HMRC) cost the taxpayer £2.15. Sure, it’s much less than the uktradeinvest.gov.uk site – which costs an eye-watering £11.78 per visit – but it’s still pretty dismal. Something had to change, and Mark Prisk is the right man to do the job.

Before entering politics, Mark Prisk was an entrepreneur like you. He knows what growing businesses worry about, he knows about the red tape, he knows how difficult it can be to work with government. He blogged for us after his visit to DIY Kyoto, again highlighting the need to simplify processes.

The writing has been on the wall for Business Link for a long time. It was inevitable that Business Link was going to be affected by public sector spending cuts. In my interview with Mark Prisk yesterday, he defended cutting Business Link’s funding.

Mark Prisk said: “This department [BIS], like all departments, is looking at a 25 per cent cut or thereabouts. It may be more or it may be less – we’ll have to wait and see. But that’s the reality of it – and business support is part of that. ”

Although some of the £190m will be used to fund his new online business support offer, a large part of it won’t be redeployed.

What Mark Prisk doesn’t want is to try and do what the private sector does, he added. “We’re going to do more with less – we can deliver more online and make better use of private providers. That’s where we have to think intelligently about how we enable [it] to happen.”

There is a huge amount of free information in the public domain for potential entrepreneurs to tap into. Free networking groups, free websites, free how-to guides, and much more.

Sure, Business Link’s complex website did hold a lot of valuable information – but this won’t stop. Mark Prisk made it very clear that he wants to move publicly-funded business support online, and really, it can only be an improvement on Business Link’s current sinuous website.

A significant overhaul of Business Link was needed, and it is now happening. Are we happy that people may lose their jobs as a result? Of course not. But these are difficult times and tough decisions need to be taken. We can’t spend ourselves out of it, we have to cut out the waste.

I’m keen to hear more of your views on this. How useful did you find Business Link? Did you use it mostly online or face-to-face? What effect will this have on your business, if at all?

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