AS I SEE IT: Scottish Enterprise is in danger of narrowing the scope of its support for small firms, says TERRY MURDEN
Barely a day goes by without a company issuing news about its plans to cut nasty emissions and other environmentally bad practices, otherwise known as achieving ‘net zero’. Everybody, it seems, is going green and big businesses rather than the environmentalists are now leading the charge because big businesses have worked out that the green agenda wins customers and can make money.
Campaigners may have done their bit to alert the world to the climate and environmental crisis, while advances in technology have made it possible to create a society powered by clean electricity and hydrogen. But nothing drives change more than a financial reward. In its latest call for a green recovery from Covid-19 the CBI’s focus is not so just on cleaning up the planet, but on the £700 billion of economic benefits that awaits the UK this decade by doing so.
We will hear the same story when the world’s green ponderers and willing advocates meet in Glasgow at the end of the year for the COP26 climate change conference. Big businesses will be there, some of it through sponsorship, and mostly to proclaim their green credentials, knowing that they have learned how a better environmental record can benefit the bottom line.
But what of smaller firms who are about to face a government-enforced blueprint that could dent the ambitions of the next generation of growth companies?
Many small firms, including the vital startup and scaleup companies, see the green agenda as another cost and another regulation to take into account when trying to balance their books. While they share a desire to clean up the mess we’ve all created, many smaller firms are carrying huge amounts of Covid-related debt and must put cash flow and paying their bills at the top of their agenda.
Politicians must realise this when they’re devising their eco-driven policies. The language of government has changed to reflect these new priorities. In one recent press release from Scottish Enterprise the word “sustainable” appeared 16 times, a deliberate attempt to ensure we got the message.
‘Some just cannot meet the green thresholds that government policies are now demanding and it threatens to exclude them vital support’
Now the agency has unveiled a business plan with a condition that “businesses will be required to demonstrate their commitment to net zero and fair work as part of accessing Scottish Enterprise support”. That is a powerful clause that changes the rules of the game. It could underpin a new Scottish Enterprise slogan: Go green or go without.
It’s seven months since CEO Steve Dunlop left the agency (dubbed “Scottish Lentilprise” by one critic of the new green plan). There is talk that two candidates are in the frame to replace him, one currently with a Scottish university who is a former SE employee. Whoever gets the job will have no say on strategy as he or she will be handed the plan – and told to get on with it.
The government is, of course, right to drive the net zero agenda, but it must not push its luck by turning green targets into green barriers. Companies want to do all they can to help the environment, but some just cannot meet the green thresholds that government policies and edicts are demanding.
It appears from this new blueprint that any business applying for help without surefire green objectives will be on a hiding to nothing. If they are supplying services to the oil and gas industry or making anything with plastic components does that mean they will be excluded? Or will SE’s “conditions” allow such businesses to apply for help in turning these processes green? Let’s hope so, or we’ll be discarding a lot of exciting prospects before they get a chance to thrive.
Terry Murden formerly held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business