Energy and telecoms top transport in list of SME infrastructure issues

A total of 80 per cent of Forum of Private Business members responding to the organisation’s Referendum survey on ‘Infrastructure for Growth’ believe that energy costs are ‘very important’ or ‘important’ – matched by those citing access to effective telecommunications, including broadband, seen as a particular problem in rural areas.

Reliable energy supply is also a key issue for 75 per cent of respondents, followed by local banking services (73 per cent) and local roads (65 per cent).

Other small business infrastructure priorities are post office services, mobile communications, the motorway network, the provision of skills training, waste services and recycling, e-communications and rail transport.

Back in October 2011 energy costs were also Forum members’ major bugbear. In a survey 94 per cent of respondents reported energy bills increasing over the previous year, followed closely by rises in transport costs (92 per cent) and increases in the price of raw materials (82 per cent).

The latest findings suggest dismay that spiralling utilities costs in particular, are hitting small firms in the pocket while the service provided by suppliers remains poor.

Among other cost control measures, the Forum is calling for a code of conduct to police the way utilities companies treat small firms – similar to the code protecting domestic customers – in particular a cap on back billing and fairer contracts to prevent them from being ‘rolled over’ onto more expensive deals with little or no prior knowledge.

In the latest survey, when asked to grade infrastructure-related problems by how they should be prioritised by the Government, most business owners identified business rates (52 per cent).

The Forum believes a fairer formula must be found, perhaps via a government-run taskforce, to counter the ever-increasing burden of business rates. In April this year business rates rose by 5.6 per cent because they were pegged to the previous September’s Consumer Prices Index level of inflation. While the Government has set up a scheme allowing a percentage of the increase to be deferred, these sizeable costs are being delayed rather than tackled.

Overall, 24 per cent of Forum members surveyed want the Government to concentrate on improving their local business infrastructures – more than three times the 7 per cent calling for a focus on national strategic projects. The majority (63 per cent) believe there should be a balance between the two.

Infrastructure is about more than just roads and railways, it is about developing a joined-up system where projects on transport and communication work in harmony with proactive policies on energy, tax and red tape to boost business and consumer confidence. That requires a much clearer road map for growth than we have at present.