The best business advice, opinion, news and expertise in Greater Manchester and further afield.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Budget Wishlists

Dr Brian Sloan, Chief Economist at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce


One by one various groups and organisations are issuing their Budget Wishlists to the Chancellor. A host of very laudable requests of the Chancellor of the Exchequer are being made and certainly there are many that the Chamber itself might otherwise have been asking for on behalf of Greater Manchester’s business community itself.


So why didn’t we and why only four requests? Because it's simple. The Chamber maintains that the Government must stop tinkering and deliver a Budget that is clear and can create confidence for British businesses. Sure there are many things to be done, but we must also remain realistic about the financial constraints within which the Budget will be set and what can actually be delivered, both economically and politically, and what will practically appeal to business, e.g. a well meaning National Insurance Holiday for small businesses was poorly targeted and heavily undersubscribed when in fact it could have been easily automated with Government will.

Since the last election the Coalition Government has ripped up the rule book in many areas: Regional Development Agencies for example, the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Localism Act and the abolition of BusinessLink. This has led to considerable uncertainty for businesses and we must now deal with this and allow the processes to deliver the changes whether we agree with these or not. Simply calling for changes now would add further uncertainty when what is needed is stability. Government has also announced a programme of changes to the corporation tax regime to be implemented over a number of years, proposed reform to reduce red tape and talked about the re-balancing of the economy towards the regions. For these reasons we see no gain in trying to argue for many polices that are already in the pipeline.

So we want a clear and simple Budget, with no tinkering, no gimmicks and free of politics. We remain in the throes of previous announcements and are now being subjected to the political tomfoolery of announcing the announcements.


The concerning thing is that the Government persists in creating small initiatives and pots of money that grab the headlines with simplistic sound bites, but are in reality complex and require understanding and time to access or place a bid. One such scheme is the £1m Portas Pilot for the high street. The high street must change, but only 12 town centres will be successful, though now it seems every district or town centre wants a slice of this money. £85,000 may result in a net gain for the winning centres but what difference will it really make? The really worrying thing about this bidding process is that collectively the cost to the public purse of civil servants and town hall officials debating this issue and preparing their bids will far exceed £1m. This scheme should be abandoned immediately, so that the public sector remains focused on dealing with the issues facing local areas and isn't distracted.

Considerable effort is taken to prepare Budget Wishlists. We’ve adopted a pragmatic approach that will allow business to settle and create some much needed stability when there is a world of uncertainty around us.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Great Rate Debate



By Chris Fletcher, Policy Director at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

"Last week I was fortunate enough to speak at an excellent event in London, put on by the Westminster Social Policy Forum on the subject of the new rules and opportunities arising from the local retention of business rates by councils.

"The new rules follow on from a consultation by government into local government financing and now seem to have been subsumed into the whole work and policy arena around the Localism Act and the drive to devolve power from Whitehall.

"In brief, the potential will be there for local councils to retain any growth in business rates from within their areas to help maintain local finances.

"Now I'm betting here that anyone reading this so far will be thinking what is the difference with what happens now?

"Therein lies one of the problems that I raised last week. Whilst on the surface nothing seems to have changed, the whole mechanics behind business rates have, and the result of that could be quite dramatic in years to come. It must be said, though, that this is not about allowing local councils to set the level of rates - assurances have been given that this is not on the cards - but it is more about what authorities fund with them.

"To be fair, I'm not sure many people understand what the current business rate system is and to be honest, I find the flow of money collected locally, which is then sent to Whitehall for it to come back again, quite baffling too. One of the real problems with the current system is that it destroys accountability between a business rate payer and the local council. The reason? Your local council doesn't have any control over what it collects or what it gets back from business rates. The new system potentially will change that.

"That sounds promising, but let’s just pause for a minute. If local authorities got control over business rates what would they be spent on? From last week’s conference it was clear that in an age of severe local cutbacks, some, if not all, of the funds would go to cover the cost of existing services. The job of balancing the books has to go on irrespective of where the money comes from; however the Government proposals are much more about encouraging business growth in areas rather than bean counting. The logic is sound behind this - if you were a local authority, then attracting more businesses to an area or encouraging more start-ups would see your business rate income increasing giving you more funding.

"So, I was somewhat perturbed that I seemed to be a lone voice last week putting the case that this money should be targeted on businesses and economic development.

"In our Chamber Views survey last week we asked members about what businesses thought the money would be spent on. The results showed a spread across the usual council services. When asked what it should be spent on not surprisingly there was a massive shift toward business support, local transport and economic development.

"The really frustrating thing about this is that at its heart there is a really good idea here about greater local financial control, potentially positive use of money, a golden opportunity to help catalyse economic growth at a real grass roots level and maybe greater accountability between local authorities and the local businesses that create the wealth of this country.

"I may have been a bit of a lone voice last week, but I was your lone voice in putting across the business side to this issue; a voice that I feel has been ignored for too long with regard to business rates. Let’s see if we can change that."

Friday, 24 February 2012

Friday Guest Blog

Catherine Stuart-Jervis, Chief Executive , The Charity Service

Following the GMCVO Membership Survey in 2010 which indicated that many charities and groups felt they were at risk during 2012/2013 due to public spending cuts and the scarcity of grants, The Charity Service reviewed our strategy with the aim of trying to offer as much help as possible to charitable groups working at the heart of their communities.

The Charity Service is a Manchester-based UK wide charity that enhances charitable giving. We have a wide range of services that support registered charities, governance checked voluntary and community groups, individual donors and businesses to “Make More Of Every Gift”. We help charities and businesses to raise, process and distribute funds to help sustain a diverse and thriving third sector.

Larger charities are increasingly utilising more aggressive fundraising techniques and technology to access donations. The UK is a generous society but donations over the last decade have been stable. We particularly want to help charities and groups to get online so they can improve their market position to receive electronic donations which has seen an 85% growth in activity during the last three years. We also want smaller groups to understand and access tax incentives to add value to any donations received. We know that smaller, under-resourced community groups can find technology and taxes difficult so we are here to help.

Our services include Payroll Giving, Charity Cheque Accounts, Online Donation Services, Donate Now Hyperlinks for websites, Trust Management and Grant Distribution, Governance Consultancy, Wills and Inheritance Services, Charity Accountancy Services, Corporate Social Responsibility Planning and Investment Expertise. As part owner of an established charity investment expert, we offer a full charity portfolio administration, co-trustee and financial advisory and management service.

We work with businesses large and small to help plan, deliver and measure the social impact of their Corporate Social Responsibility work. We can help with payroll giving schemes, partnership brokerage with local and national charities, Community Investment activity, media engagement and provide social impact reports as necessary for tender applications.

The Charity Service is one of the longest serving of Manchester’s charities with roots going back to 1924 and is well known and respected as an independent infrastructure organisation that can help charitable organisations and donors to ensure their finances and governance requirements are well managed, effective and fully compliant.
We are a “virtual” organisation so our own administration costs are efficient, we do not seek to accrue reserves – only to remain sustainable and our fee structure is flexible and competitive. As a charity ourselves all fees raised remain within the charitable sector and enable us to offer advice and support to smaller organisations at no direct cost.

For more information please visit our recently re-launched website http://www.charityservice.org.uk/ and our online donations site http://www.mygift.co.uk/where unlike many online donation sites, we do not make a charge to register an appeal. Or you can call 0303 999 1212 for more information. Follow all our links to twitter, youtube, linkedin and flickr from the website.


I'd like to invite you to our “Strictly Funding” event co-hosted with Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) on Wednesday 18th April, where we will explore alternatives to traditional funding for third sector and not for profit organisations. This event is aimed at infrastructure and other third party organisations looking at alternatives to grants and to diversify and future proof their funding strategies. Come along to the event to get advice and explore various avenues of funding and finance resilience – after all, if you don’t, your beneficiaries could be at risk!


The keynote speaker will be Tom Latchford. You will learn about Action Planning, followed by a whistle stop tour of innovative options to explore for your organisation.


Stall Holders - including the Royal Bank of Scotland, Unity Trust Bank, Castlefield Investments, CCLA, CAF, Charity Bank and local accountancy firms – will offer expert advice on investments and other forms of social finance.


For further details, please contact Tanya Coutts, Tanya.coutts@gmcvo.org.uk 0161 277 1002.
To book please register online via the link below.


Location: GMCVO, St Thomas Centre, Ardwick Green North, Manchester, M12 6FZ.



A Tick Box Exercise in Progress


By Chris Fletcher, Policy Director at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce


“What makes a business tick? Don't answer that just yet I will come back to that in a few moments.

“This week saw the starting pistol fired on the first QES of 2012. It doesn't seem like five minutes since we put the record-breaking Q4 survey to bed, but time and tide waits for no survey and so we are up and running again. Hopefully you have already taken part in the only economic survey that counts, that others try and emulate but can’t. So, don’t go for cheap imitations - stick with the original and best.

“On the subject of all things economic - the budget is looming and as ever we have written to the Chancellor with what members have told us (from previous QES surveys and other sources) as to what they would like to see him announce on 21st March.

“I think it's fair to say that we have been critical of government with their unique approach to a growth strategy by utterly confusing business with a myriad of similar sounding schemes that grab the headlines then seem to disappear into the Whitehall labyrinths never to return - credit easing anyone? So with this in mind, we have been succinct in our letter to the Chancellor and kept it brief: http://gmchamber-production.s3.amazonaws.com/attachments/97/original.pdf?2012

“This week also saw a very interesting article from Lord Digby Jones about giving business a vote in the upcoming mayoral referendums. This isn't as wild a possibility as you may think. I've been involved with talks at a national level about how to make something similar happen as a result of the Localism Act and the introduction of neighbourhood plans. In a nutshell, neighbourhood plans pave the way for local communities to have the power to vote on development plans for those areas. All sounds really good, but what about businesses in those areas - should they have a vote and if so, how would that happen?

“This may be a good question for a piece of policy- wonkery and naval gazing but is actually becoming a bit of a critical issue. Last year you may recall, after a piece of work done by the Chamber, Trafford Park was nominated as a business neighbourhood pilot as part of the Government’s response to look at how businesses can take advantage of the powers of neighbourhoods contained in the Localism Act. The concept was to have local plans endorsed by a business referendum to OK any decisions made on the ground. This mechanism already exists, sort of, in the rules around Business Improvement Districts but taking this one stage further under the scope of the Act and we could see joint referenda of residents and businesses from the same area voting on development plans.

“On Thursday, this issue raised its head again at a seminar I was speaking at on new rules around the retention of business rates by local authorities. I will do a separate piece on this in the next few days, but one question I posed was: “In amongst all the "excitement" around local councils being able to retain an increase in business rates, what mechanism is there for a veneer of accountability to be put on this so that the people who are funding this (i.e. business owners) have some form of say in what happens to the money raised?” I know - how about a business vote?

“Via a back door route through the Localism Act the Government has, unintentionally, opened a bit of a Pandora’s box and I'm not too sure what the results of this will be. The Chamber will continue to work, as ever, to get the best result for business and make sure that when I get asked in the future what makes a business tick, the answer will be about having more responsibility and taking control of local issues.

“So before any businesses officially get the vote why not use the opportunity for a "warm up" and take part in our QES? It will only take a tick. http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/qes"

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Some Thoughts On The Bank’s Inflation Briefing

Dr Brian Sloan

This week I’ve been to the quarterly inflation briefing held by the regional office of the Bank of England. As always it was an excellent presentation, on this occasion delivered by the regional deputy Simon Caunt standing in for John Young. I am always struck at how few people attend the Manchester briefing given the standard of delivery and the information presented in a very digestible format. I can highly recommend it and it comes complete with great butties and a view from City Tower.

I had a few thoughts as Simon spoke. He said that there were some encouraging signs at the back of the ONS data release on unemployment. Interesting, but we are in the North West and both ONS and our own survey data show weak job creation and continued loss of public sector jobs across our region. The Bank expects recession to be avoided and that growth will pick up as a consequence of consumer spending, some business investment and exports.


We share the Bank’s view that recession will be avoided, but growth must come from business investment and cannot be dependent on consumers. The economy must rebalance away from consumption, but must be supported as it shifts. Consumers are still being squeezed by inflation at 3.6%, more than the 2.2% average wage rise, and lack confidence due to job security. Business investment is weak due to the uncertain economic outlook, and without investment large numbers of jobs are unlikely to be created. Exports have continued to see growth but now require a shift in business focus towards emerging markets, which will take time. The Bank seems to believe that US growth and demand will help, but largely unreported was the US Congress vote in January that saw the country increase its debt ceiling yet again, this time by $1.2 trillion to $16.4 trillion; the US has its own debt problems that at some point must unwind.

One other concerning fact emerging from the inflation report is the increase in the cost of funding for financial institutions that is making its way to businesses and consumers as higher interest rates on debt. My question would be, how will consumer demand respond to the increasing cost of debt? Still sitting on almost double the debt levels of the late 1980s, UK consumers started to repay that debt in 2008, though this came to a halt as the recession set in and inflation took hold. Low interest rates are enabling consumers to manage their debt, but for how long will this continue if growth does not return and interest rates start to rise? A weak Sterling, caused in part by the asset purchase programme, is also causing imported inflation for consumers and businesses. Whilst oil has not yet hit the dizzy heights of $140 per barrel in 2008, people will ask why fuel prices are so high? It is because the weakness of Sterling means the price of a barrel of oil to the UK is now over £70 per barrel, the price it reached in 2008, in fact at one point today it was over £76 per barrel! More costs for businesses and consumers alike.

Much is being placed on the consumer driving growth ahead, yet that is in some doubt. Our position is that more must be done to get the economy onto a longer term path of growth and to support the regional economies. Infrastructure investment could help deliver domestic growth in the regions, supporting jobs and consumer demand, better than the current asset purchase programme that results in inflation. We require infrastructure to support business confidence that it can invest and have the ability to move people and goods now and into the future.


Investing in this infrastructure now will help domestic growth to get people into work, stimulate business investment and enable growth in the years ahead. The Government needs to facilitate this investment by removing planning obstacles, ensuring that our young people are equipped with the rights skills and that excessive regulation, especially employment legislation, is addressed.

These are just some thoughts and by no means complete, but this is a blog. I hope this encourages people to sign up for and attend the Bank’s regional quarterly briefs and join the debate.

Back To School?


Chris Fletcher, Policy Director at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.


A real mixed bag of a week last week with a number of highs (unemployment), lows (inflation) and the swings and roundabouts of business issues coming out of our member committees.

The figures for unemployment were not surprising but were desperately worrying as the upward trend continued. The upside of the week was the easing of inflation with the dropping out of last year's VAT rise. Whilst both changes had been anticipated for some time the former especially still made for unpleasant reading.

The whole subject of unemployment especially youth unemployment has really been under the microscope recently with the issues discussed at our Chamber Council meeting in January and, following this, our Employment and Skills committee which met on Thursday. Part of the issue is the fact that this has been around for a number of generations with current circumstances really concentrating the damage being done. It would be very easy to skim off the most recently impacted with some short-term subsidised activity, but the view from our members is that this approach doesn't deliver the longer term impact needed not just to alleviate the problem but, more importantly, give business the access they demand to a properly trained and effective work force. Of course, if the demand for the jobs isn't there in the first place no matter what you do the problem will not be resolved. Add in the seemingly never ending issue of a lack of the right skills and a lack of "work-readiness" and there is a perfect storm raging which coupled with sluggish growth prospects does not bode well.

One possible solution that came out of the Employment and Skills committee was to look at how business can really make an impact on young people whilst they are still in school. Not just in later years but when they start secondary school - year 7 in new money. This is going to be discussed by members at our Local Council meetings over the next few weeks.Building on some good work already taking place in Stockport we will be looking for ideas to stop the talking and start taking action on this key issue. I'd be interested to hear your views on this and if you're interested in finding out more about the Chambers Local Council near you then visit www.gmchamber.co.uk/pages/our-work for more information.

This is just one issue that we are working on at present, a major one at that but it is a crucial part of our Action For Business work. Click here to find out more and get involved.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Friday Guest Blog

Stephanie Littler from St John Ambulance, North-West, explains how to improve fire safety and keep arsonists at bay without spending too much money.

In these challenging economic times employers are having to make savings where they can. Sometimes health and safety costs can seem onerous. However not all good fire safety practices are costly. Below are some inexpensive, impactful fire safety tips which can be implemented immediately at the office to protect your business and employees from the devastating effects of fire.
Some of these include:

1. Prevent fires:

a. Turn off computers at night – to avoid the risk of an ‘electrical’ fire
b. Avoid overloading sockets. Adopt the ‘one plug, one socket’ rule; if this is not possible use extension leads instead of plug adapters.

c. Good housekeeping – ensure the bins inside and outside are not overflowing and paper is not stored by heat sources and electrical sockets
d. Close doors and windows when offices are not occupied to help prevent fires from spreading
e. In this cold and wet weather ensure staff don’t dry their clothes over portable or convector heaters
f. Provide information, instruction and staff training in fire safety and evacuation – so as the team understands what the fire hazards are in your organisation and generally, know what they can do to prevent fires and what to do in the event of a fire.
g. Supervision – after the training ensure staff do not go back to their old ways by checking they are continuing to behave ‘safely’.
h. Reduce the number of false alarms through good communication and supervision of outside contractors. Statistics show that the risk of fire and a false alarm can increase when contractors are on your premises – for example, they can do work which releases particles and dust which then triggers the fire sensors.
i. Ensure you have the legally required number of fire marshals. The four hour St John Ambulance Fire Marshal course is approved by the Institute of Fire Engineers. Many of the trainers delivering this course have actual firefighting experience.
j. Conduct fire drills every year, or preferably more, for each shift – to ensure all staff know how to react if there’s a fire and to identify any problems with your emergency plan.
k. Arson. Over 43% of all fires in the UK are now believed to be caused by arson. Alarmingly, 40% of businesses affected by arson never recover.
i. Deny the arsonist fuel - arsonists can set the contents of bins on fire and so keep waste in secured containers away from buildings and fences and ensure waste is collected regularly.
ii. Keep intruders out. Make it hard for an arsonist to enter your building through not leaving windows and doors open and a system of staff routinely and politely challenging visitors on to your premises

2. It can take only three minutes for a fire to become fierce and devastating. To ensure a safe evacuation you should have beforehand:


a. kept fire exit routes sterile – free from boxes and other items which people could trip over and which would add fuel to a fire
b. not put paper on noticeboards in the fire escape route. This paper could fuel the fire and prevent people safely exiting the building.
c. not locked fire exit doors
d. placed firefighting equipment on the escape route preferably by the fire exits – to help ensure a safe exit
e. Downloaded a free fire safety guide from the CLG website, if you’ve not done so already.

The list above is not exhaustive and your fire risk assessment, which should be reviewed regularly, will identify priority areas and suitable control measures.

Visit http://www.sja.org.uk/ for your free fire marshal calculator, further fire safety advice and to book delegates on to the St John Ambulance Fire Marshal course.

With St John Ambulance Fire Marshal training you can be the difference between a life lost and a life saved.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Anthony Fisher is Managing Director of Debtfocus

What do you do if you can’t afford to pay your bills?


The start of 2012 isn’t pleasant for some, mounting bills that just can’t be paid, debt collectors and even possible court action. The good news is that there is always a solution that doesn’t involve jail or jumping from a cliff.


First of all, write down all your debts, the amounts owed and the monthly
payment required to maintain your commitments. Next, write down
everything you have got coming in and everything you have got going out that are classed as priority bills like mortgage, gas, electric, council tax etc. Take the amount coming in and minus the amount going out and that is what you have left to pay your non-priority bills like loans, credit cards and catalogues. Now, you need to get in front of a computer and get the best deals on the market for all your priority bills, make sure you are paying the cheapest for gas,
electric and insurances etc.


You are now in a position where you can analyse if you are able to pay those debts. If you are then stick to your budget and get those debts paid off as quickly as possible and make sure you obtain the 0% APR deals where possible. If you aren’t able to pay those debts, then you should seek help from someone who will give you free advice. You can get this from the CAB or CCCCS but most Insolvency Practitioners will give free initial meetings. These are trained professionals who specialise in the law relating to debt and are generally much better qualified and informed to give you the right advice and send you in the right direction.


There are many options available and will depend on your individual circumstances, there is no one size fits all. However, as a general guidance, the options could range from a simple consolidation loan right up to personal bankruptcy or you may qualify for a government backed procedure called an Individual Voluntary Arrangement, whereby you pay your ‘disposable’ monthly payment for 5 years in full and final settlement with the balance written off.


Anthony Fisher is Managing Director of Debtfocus based in Appley Bridge, Wigan, a leading expert in financial management. Debtfocus is a Licensed Insolvency Practitioners and has two associate companies- Focus Insolvency Group Ltd that deals with corporate debt and Moneyfocus Financial Solutions Ltd that deals with financial services. Anthony and his team can be found at debtproblemsuk.com or by calling 01257 251319.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Major Changes to Employment Law in 2012

Last year businesses saw a number of significant changes in employment legislation and 2012 promises to be just as eventful.

Aarti Bedi, Employment Solicitor at colemans-ctts, examines the main changes businesses should be aware of and highlights the key reforms in employment law in 2012, including changes to the tribunal system, compensation limits and other proposed reforms.

Tribunals

From April 2012 the Government will introduce the following changes to the Tribunal System:
• The qualifying period for an employee to bring an unfair dismissal claim will increase from one to two years.
• The maximum amount of deposit a Tribunal can order a party to pay, as a condition of continuing with their proceedings, will increase from £500 to £1,000.
• The Tribunal will be able to direct parties to bear the costs of witnesses attending a hearing.
• Witness statements will be taken as read at the Employment Tribunal unless directed otherwise.
• Employment Judges will hear unfair dismissal cases alone, unless directed otherwise.


Compensation limits

• From 1st February 2012, the maximum weekly pay for calculating statutory redundancy payment & basic awards will increase from £400 to £430. The maximum unfair dismissal compensatory award will increase to £72,300.
• From 1st April 2012, the standard rate for statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay will increase to £135.45 per week.
• From 6th April 2012, the standard rate for statutory sick pay will increase to £85.65 per week.


Other changes to look out for in 2012
Note. Many of these are still at the consultation stage.

• Introduction of employment tribunal fees.
• Introduction of financial Penalties against Employers, in the event of losing a claim.
• Reforms to allow “protected conversations” in the workplace.
• Increased Parental Leave.
• Reforms to Increase the use of mediation to resolve workplace disputes.
• Introduction of a simplified Compromise Agreement.
• Pension changes

If you are worried about the changes in the law in 2012 or any other employment matter, call Aarti on 0161 876 2502. Email aarti.bedi@colemans-ctts.co.uk or visit www.colemans-ctts.co.uk


Follow Aarti for the latest employment updates on Twitter @Aartibedi