The Business Centre Association (BCA) has called for local authorities to enter into public/private partnerships with its members to run flexible workspace or to sell off under-performing local authority-run business centers in line with the government's pre-Budget aim to cut costs and raise money from its property estate.
The BCA says such moves would encourage more private sector development of business centres in the UK to support the burgeoning SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) sector, which would in turn create greater employment and regeneration opportunities. They could additionally attract more inward investment through the provision of flexible satellite office space for new or growing SMEs from overseas.
These moves would also help facilitate the BCA's proposed Flexible Space Voucher Scheme under which SMEs would be entitled to receive BCA-accredited office or workspace accommodation for an initial one-year period at no cost, and at a reduced rate for a further two years. Under the proposal, the vouchers would be funded either through profit share management agreements between local authorities and private sector operators or from the sale of local-authority run business centres.
The UK scheme will be presented by the BCA to the government early this year. The initiative is part of a wider plan by The European Confederation of Business Centre Associations representing operators of serviced office/flexible space in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and the UK to roll out a cross-border voucher scheme, which would provide inward investment opportunities to participating countries. The associations representing each country are discussing the scheme with their respective governments which will be followed by meetings with MEPs to explore European-wide implementation.
Tom Stokes, past chair of the BCA and managing director of Evans Easyspace, who is tabling the voucher scheme in the UK, says: "The sale of local authority assets will not only raise capital for the government but will take business centres out of public ownership into the private sector, removing the feeling of unfair competition and resulting in more private sector business centers being developed."
Jennifer Brooke, executive director of the BCA, points out that workspace centres managed by industry specialists have a number of advantages over those managed as part of the local authority portfolio. "Among other attributes, BCA members offer a higher level of ongoing workspace support, greater investment in services and new technology and generally create a more commercial working environment with fewer resultant business failures," she says. "The voucher scheme also provides a springboard from which start-ups can develop their business, encouraging in turn a strong entrepreneurial spirit within the UK economy."
There are around 300 local authority locations that offer flexible managed workspace of varying size, service and quality, with a corresponding lack of consistency. As the vouchers would only be redeemable in BCA member locations of which there are over 850 in the UK all SMEs who sign-up to the scheme are guaranteed recommended industry standards as set down in the BCA's code of conduct. This consistency in standards would be replicated throughout Europe once the wider scheme has been ratified.
Tom Stokes argues that the public sector has an important role to play in the flexible workspace industry, by providing ongoing and consistent support through organisations like Business Link. These organisations would issue the vouchers through a screening process and help identify locations where they can be redeemed. He firmly believes that business support agencies should be encouraged to work more closely with private sector providers. "Business support should be linked to the business and not the property, with the private sector providing the premises and the public sector, the support," he maintains.