Ruth McKay: Finding a winning formula for business

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The pledges already made by the new administration are welcome, but growing the city’s economy to help small businesses must be made a priority, writes Ruth McKay

Setting out a business plan with clear objectives, deadlines and budgets is something which every enterprise has to do. Reflecting on where your business is and where it is going can be difficult and time-consuming but is ultimately necessary if you want to ensure that your firm has the best chance of success.

The 50 key pledges contained within the newly elected Labour/SNP Edinburgh City Council coalition agreement, couldn’t be described as a plan, but they do give you a strong idea of the new administration’s aspirations for the city.

Indeed, while only a few relate directly to the business community, it is heartening to read that even at this early stage the city council is asking itself what it can do to boost growth and support job creation.

For example, the council commits to look into developing new sources of finance for Edinburgh’s small business community. It would be difficult to ignore the Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) campaigning on this issue where we’ve argued that a lack of flexible, affordable finance is hurting the country’s army of small firms. We’re delighted to hear that someone is paying attention.

If the council manages to crack this nut, I have no doubt that not only will it have the eternal gratitude of the city’s small businesses but it’ll also have Vince Cable and Scotland’s 31 other councils banging its doors down to ask how it did it. Further, the council has committed to offer its unused premises on short low-cost lets to small businesses. An FSB call from the 2011 election, this is an idea that could make a real difference as many start-up and growing businesses complain of a dearth of affordable city office space.

While the trick will be to develop the council space without undermining the city’s commercial property market, I believe that “office hubs” with fast broadband and meeting spaces could play a small part in helping some home-based Edinburgh businesses grow.

Similarly, the council pledges to develop the city’s gap sites and encourage regeneration. The key here will be for the council not to be tempted to fit a new office block or large hotel into every empty site. Ensuring that Edinburgh continues to have a strong, mixed economy will be key to creating jobs and growth.

If we have learnt the lessons of the past, we know that becoming over-reliant on a small number of very large employers, private or public, is a risky business.

However, developing all parts of the city’s economy will require respect and dialogue, though the council acknowledges that there has been a breakdown of trust between its elected members and the residents of the city.

That’s why it is pleasing to read that council plans to develop an independent forum to promote locally-owned retail businesses. Let’s hope that it opens up conversation with shop owners from the West End, Stockbridge, Morningside, Haymarket, Leith Walk and the Royal Mile and doesn’t spend its time in hand-wringing discussion about the state of Prince Street. This forum is very welcome but we need to see action as well as words.

The future of streets like the Royal Mile is in an interesting mix of small businesses in both retail and non-retail. The council is the biggest landlord in many areas and could have an immediate effect by introducing a more sensible rents policy. Its recent 80 per cent-plus rent increases have damaged its reputation even further.

Developing strong communications channels with the 89 per cent of businesses classified as small in the city needs to be a priority for this administration.

What’s missing from the coalition agreement? Well, I did note that in the SNP’s mini-manifesto for jobs it pledged that every one of its councils would create a special economic growth plan designed to create more jobs. Perhaps this is on its way – though worryingly not listed in the coalition agreement.

We’ll be looking for it to tackle planning, procurement, better implemented local regulation, better support for businesses looking to take someone on in addition to a marketing vision for the city and assurances about strong governance associated with the tram project.

We’ll also be pushing for the council to get all its departments to understand that growing the city’s economy must be the number one priority for the next five years.

Edinburgh’s small businesses don’t expect their council to transform the local economy single-handedly, but they do expect local government to do all it can to support businesses to grow.

The FSB doesn’t underestimate the huge service delivery challenges facing the council. However, these problems will only be compounded if we don’t boost economic growth and employment.

• Ruth McKay is Edinburgh branch chairwoman of the Federation of Small Businesses

Talking shop

AMONG the key pledges outlined by the city council’s new coalition administration last week were policies designed to boost business in the Capital. It promised to:

n Consult further on the viability and legality of a “tourist tax”

n Set up a forum to promote locally owned retail businesses

n Identify unused council premises to offer short, low-cost lets to small businesses, community groups and other interested parties

n Ensure the council continues to take on apprentices and steps up efforts to prepare young people for work