Only a grassroots, joined-up funding approach will keep our entrepreneurs growing

Small businesses are the backbone of our regional economy. Over 120,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) operate here, contributing three-quarters of all private sector income generated. Whether it is a new café, car dealership, or new-tech start-up, entrepreneurs are working hard to make their business a success within a growing Northern Irish economy.

Hear from our Chief Executive, Michael McQuillan:

"In our current climate, setting up shop has never been more daunting. The pandemic has subsided, but businesspeople are now amid a perfect storm of skyrocketing costs and straining consumer confidence. The cost-of-living crisis is equally a cost-of-doing-business crisis. Entrepreneurs need investment, but with the future of economic development funding facing post-Brexit uncertainty, their growth ambitions could be stifled in years to come.

The loss of EU funding in March 2023 poses significant challenges to the local enterprise sector. At Enterprise NI, we work with more than 4,000 entrepreneurs and local micro and small businesses every week.

Our local enterprise agency network is the front line of support throughout Northern Ireland, providing start-ups with bespoke support, flexible tenancies, and advice they require to help move from idea through launch to growth. Simply put, any loss in resource would mean fewer successful entrepreneurs.

The UK's Shared Prosperity and Levelling Up Funds are proving exciting prospects, and with the right approach, can provide a thriving support model for our local pre-enterprisers, start-ups, and growing businesses. For this funding to work on a local level, leadership is required. A new, grassroots, co-designed approach is required to ensure that each pound being spent is providing the best service and support for individuals and businesses across Northern Ireland.

Our proposed solution is simple. By working closely with local government, central government, and Invest NI, we can create the powerful enterprise support service that aspiring entrepreneurs need. Meeting ongoing challenges means working together – in tandem, not in our silos. We can ensure the best bits of our entrepreneurial ecosystem become more effective.

We are proposing the establishment of a new ‘Primary Care Network' in Northern Ireland so local entrepreneurs get the right support at the right time. The service will provide immediate diagnostic, local targeted assistance, and informed signposting and connection to the right support throughout the enterprise ecosystem, to aspiring business owners that will truly make a difference to our villages and town and city centres.

The coming months into the new year will be extremely difficult for small and micro businesses across the country. These are some of the most hostile trading conditions in living memory, and a weakened pound only further complicates matters. A looming financial cliff edge for start-ups and small businesses could be the death knell for budding entrepreneurs.

The stakes are high. A failure to act in a constructive, joined-up fashion will be a dereliction of duty to the thousands of aspiring business owners across Northern Ireland and to the local communities where they are based.

With a joined approach from the Enterprise Northern Ireland network, Councils, Stormont, and key development agencies, we can build a new, impactful, cost-effective way of delivering enterprise support. All we need now is action."