In a major overhaul of its business support services, the government is scrapping the existing Business Link structure in favour of a voluntary organisation.
Business Link has divided opinions among entrepreneurs and small business owners for years. Some find the service invaluable; others, useless.
Clare Bampton, founder of PR firm Bampton Communications, has seen both sides of the coin: "Business Link's business advisers are very mixed," she says. "I have found several excellent advisers that I keep in touch with and who are able to offer me advice that helps my business to grow and become more profitable. However, I have come across some that are utterly useless - honestly I'm not sure how some of them get dressed in the morning."
Despite her varied experiences, Bampton does believe that the site is a unique and useful resource for small business owners. "The information that Business Link offers through its website is excellent," she says. "The trouble is that no-one seems to know it exists or the extent of it - once you discover this resource, it's invaluable."
Business Link currently employs 1,600 paid advisors. These will soon be replaced by a network of 40,000 unpaid mentors when the government launches its 'Mentoring Gateway' this June. Several organisations have already signed up to the scheme, including the CBI, FSB, and Prince's Trust. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says that these volunteers will offer "practical advice to existing businesses and people who want to start a business". But is this a pie in the sky?
Cris Beswick, serial entrepreneur and author of The Road to Innovations believes that scrapping Business Link, V1.0, is a mistake: "Business Link provides a vital service to small businesses. In a time when the government wants entrepreneurship, innovation and growth, stifling the ability of small businesses to flourish seems to be a conflicting strategy."
Bampton agrees: "Transferring responsibilities to volunteer 'mentors'? It makes me shudder . Is it just me or do you find that becoming a volunteer mentor for any organisation seems to attract people that just want to add something to their CV? If Business Link couldn't vet its advisers appropriately when it was offering salaried positions, then how will this improve?"
To assuage fears of this nature, the government has promised that - along with the volunteer mentors - the site will be revamped, adding loads of bells and whistles to help start-ups and small businesses find what they need online. April will see the launch of the 'Business Startup Hub' - a portal that will allow users to register their business with Companies House, provide a searchable database of government contracts, training tools and regularly updated information on regulation and employment law.
Prime Minister David Cameron says: "Throughout this year and beyond we will be focused relentlessly on supporting growth and driving job creation across our economy. Backing new enterprises to start up and small businesses to grow will be what transforms our economy and will deliver the many thousands of new jobs we will see created this year.
"It is vital that we ensure businesses, and those people who find themselves out of work but have the drive and desire to set up their own business, have all the advice, support and mentoring they need. Together we can make the years ahead some of the most dynamic and entrepreneurial in our history."
Cameron is no doubt hoping that organisations like the FSB and Prince's Trust will be able to cope with the volume of enquiries currently fielded by Business Link's paid staff. Beswick is not so sure.
"The FSB isn't set up like Business Link and will not in my opinion be able to replace the service now offered," he says. "Also, the suggestion that organisations like the Prince's Trust will help take up the slack is misplaced. I'm a business mentor for the Prince's Trust which is vastly under-resourced as it is. Expecting it to support small businesses as well as the young people it currently serves is unrealistic. Prince's Trust business mentors/advisors already give their time up for free - sometimes to young people that have already been through Business Link and got nowhere!"
Bampton adds: "I meet with members of Business Link on a regular basis and I will be sad to see the service disappear."
Whatever happens to Business Link, folks, you'll always have Smarta.
What do you make of the government's plans for Business Link? How have you found the service? Are you sold on the volunteer mentor scheme? Let us know by leaving your comment below.