Staffordshire & Stoke-on-Trent Business Loan Fund. Mid-term review

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1 Staffordshire & Stoke-on-Trent Business Loan Fund Mid-term review This document provides a very simple snapshot of the status of the loan fund project at approximately the mid-way point in delivery. As the performance of the loan fund, in terms of the sum invested, and the volume of jobs safeguarded and contracted to be created, is well documented, this document will focus on a SWOT analysis of the fund identifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats as discussed in a workshop with key members of the project team, including representatives of BCRS Business Loans (the fund management organisation responsible for delivery of the loan fund), Staffordshire County Council (the accountable body for the project), and Stoke-on-Trent City Council (responsible for an element of co-finance to the project).

2 Strengths: The fund is responsive it has a relatively swift process. The model is accessible for applicants. The rate of disbursement of funds is good on track/on profile. The delivery model allows the local authorities to contribute to lending, rather than to the running costs of the fund manager maximising benefit to local businesses and providing a clear performance incentive. The project is an excellent example of genuine partnership working. The fund management organisation has grown, and is well-resourced (as a team). The project is a strong statement of intent by the local authorities to support local businesses. The project provides powerful case studies of help to businesses. The project is a local loan fund three of the fund manager s team live in the project location. Brand recognition is good. The project has a strong reputation among local stakeholders and intermediaries. BCRS is one of the top-performing Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs). The whole project team has good experience of working with European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The project provides good value for money investment per job compared with many alternative forms of business support. A high level of jobs have been safeguarded and are contracted to be created. The average loan size means that risk is spread across the portfolio this is pitched about right. The fund is able to cater for a range of purposes. Control of bad debt is excellent significantly improved on performance of a related project five years ago. The delivery model is well-proven, and performance is strong.

3 Weaknesses: ERDF presents many restrictions to lending the project has to work within strict constraints. Not all sectors, and not all businesses, are able to benefit. There is a perception that the loan fund has a high interest rate (businesses are often high risk). The ERDF reporting procedures are considered onerous in order to fulfil requirements for evidencing lending and outputs/outcomes the level of responsibility on the accountable body is significant, and the volume of reporting is not considered to be proportionate. Having said that, while the project has exceeded its target for jobs safeguarded, and has contracted with loan beneficiaries to create more jobs than targeted, evidence of job creation is only slowly being provided, due to difficulties in obtaining evidence. Marketing activity, based on case studies of beneficiaries, has slowed. The current model is dependent on the loan fund being topped up with contributions from local authorities which is a risk given the pressures on budgets. Sources of finance after the current project finishes (end June 2015) are uncertain.

4 Opportunities: Revisit the rationale for the project ERDF requires strict evidence of the inability to obtain finance from a bank which is restrictive and if sources of finance (other than ERDF) were available, significant further lending could take place. Similarly, there is significant appetite from business sectors excluded from ERDF which would generate jobs for the local economy. There are opportunities for the project to be closer-aligned to local business support. The scaling-up of the team of Business Development Managers is a significant opportunity to increase lending performance in the project area. The project may be able to benefit from the multi-lep fund of funds albeit the focus is primarily on legacy from RDA equity funds. Similarly, there are opportunities to build upon loan repayments to recycle funds. There are opportunities to lend more in Stoke-on-Trent, where performance to date has not been as strong as in Staffordshire the city has many, many SMEs with demographics suggesting they are facing similar needs, and it feels that Stoke-on-Trent remains under-served. A branch office could be set up in Stoke-on-Trent this has been piloted with the use of space within one of the City Council s enterprise centres. Actively engaging businesses (and intermediaries) to encourage take-up. The funding gap remains present banks are not lending sufficiently to small businesses hence there is an ongoing need for the project and this needs to be communicated clearly to stakeholders. There are strong opportunities to use case studies to highlight and demonstrate the benefits and usefulness of the loan fund i.e. more, and more regular, PR should be undertaken. There is an opportunity to lower the provision for bad debt in future procurements/contracts, as performance has shown an excellent improvement in bad debt incurred. It is important to review the operating model when conducting any new procurement to assess whether a model whereby co-funders contribute to the running costs of the fund manager would be beneficial rather than assuming that the benefits of the current model automatically apply.

5 Threats: The project serves a purpose now, and in the immediate future, but will other sources of finance emerge? There are significant pressures on local authority budgets, so the continued renewal of local authority co-finance must not be taken for granted. The ERDF programme for is late there is likely to be a gap and it is important to avoid a hiatus in provision of funds to local businesses, particularly having worked hard to build awareness of the opportunity. It is possible that external agencies may enter this market not necessarily mainstream banks, but it is plausible that projects may be established by the British Business Bank, or by Local Enterprise Partnerships in the area. There is a lack of detail to date on the proposed West Midlands fund of funds which could be a source of finance and has ringfenced a vast amount of ERDF from the new programme but which appears to favour an equity-based model. It is crucial to understand the decision-making process for the fund of funds and how any contractual requirements will be designed. Other, less suitable, forms of finance may become available, or promoted, to businesses there is a differing level of awareness among financial intermediaries of the pros and cons of different models of finance. There are rigid constraints in the current ERDF programme, and the rules are not always consistently interpreted and can be changed during a live project, with new rules passed down from the Commission, or interpreted differently. There is a general election in 2015 and there will be local elections in the near future, both of which could lead to uncertainty for the future of this type of project. The project is dependent on loan beneficiary businesses to create jobs which means contractual outputs are outside the control of the fund manager and the accountable body.

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