By John Allan, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chairman
As I look forward to 2015 I am struck by a feeling of optimism, and by a sense that the small business landscape may never look quite the same again. It feels like small business owners are finally receiving the sort of recognition and support from across the political spectrum that has long been the mission of the FSB since our founding 40 years ago. Small firms still face many issues, not least the scandal of late payment and supply chain bullying we highlighted in December, but it seems like there has never been such a strong opportunity to make a positive impact on the outlook for small firms.
2014 was a year of firsts for small businesses and the FSB. For the first time, the number of small businesses has broken the five million mark. There are now more entrepreneurs, sole traders and freelancers than ever before. There are also more small firms taking on their first employee, growing and innovating across the UK. As economic recovery has led to falling unemployment, small businesses have been disproportionately responsible for creating new jobs. Our latest Small Business Index found small business productivity was in positive territory in 2014 for the first time since 2010. The number of small businesses exporting is also up, as are wages in sectors like personal services, construction and agriculture. This growth and economic contribution has not gone unnoticed.
The past year was also the first time both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have addressed small businesses at our policy and national conferences. In the same year, we hosted speeches by the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor. Indeed, all of the main political parties have chosen to speak at FSB events. We have also seen hundreds of parliamentary candidates from all over the UK sign up to our #ibacksmallbusiness twitter campaign. Politicians have realised that delivering economic growth and new jobs means delivering for small businesses.
Though there are plenty of positives, we know from our new growing research community Big Voice that hard times are far from over. Business confidence, although still firmly positive, is down from an all time high earlier in 2014. The money owed to small businesses in late payment has grown from £18.6 billion in 2008 to £46.1 billion today. It also seems regional economic imbalances remain engrained, while ever more gloomy predictions emerge from the Eurozone.
If the gains we have made are going to be sustained and built upon, small firms will need support from across all parties in Westminster and in the devolved administrations. The coming General Election will be a pivotal point for small business owners. What small businesses will be looking to the political parties to do is put in place the long-term foundations for sustained, balanced growth. It will not be a question of big vs small, but one of making sure all businesses have the environment they need to succeed — what we call big via small. This means responsible business, whether this is through better support of the supply chain, more apprenticeships or prompt payment terms between businesses. In our Business Manifesto for the 2015 General Election we have outlined what is needed, including measures to tackle include the dysfunctional business rate system; the ongoing skills gap, and improving access to finance.
Turning to the devolved nations, the past year has been one of fierce debate over the future of how we are governed. Many questions are still unanswered and 2015 will likely see these debates continue. In Scotland the independence question is settled and I hope 2015 will be a year to reconcile divisions and get back to business. With FSB support Northern Ireland has won its long campaign to be able to independently set corporation tax, while Wales now has the power to set business rates. It will be interesting to see how these victories affect the wider debates on the devolution of powers in other parts of the UK.
Finally, in a reflection of the ambition of our members to invest and grow their businesses, the FSB itself has also pegged 2015 as a year to grow. Following a period of reorganisation and consolidation, we have made a major investment to support rapid growth of our membership. There has never been a better time to join the FSB and get your voice heard at the highest level.