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Many of the UK's smallest firms still in survival mode

1 June 2021

Despite signs that the economy is bouncing back strongly, 15% of owner-managed businesses are in survival mode and expect to make redundancies, according to a new report.

Research by the Association of Practising Accountants (APA) has found that while most small business owners are optimistic about their recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, many are still facing an uncertain economic outlook.

One in ten (11%) owner-managers polled by the APA said it is likely they will have to make redundancies in the next three to six months, potentially putting 1.85 million jobs at risk across the UK. More than half (53%) of respondents identified uncertain trading conditions as their biggest challenge.

What's more, a quarter (24%) reported a negative or very negative impact on their business since the UK left the EU and 15% of small business owners polled cited Brexit supply chain issues as their single biggest challenge. In the longer term, 54% were more positive about their economic prospects outside the EU, while 46% were less positive.

Even so, many businesses are optimistic that they will bounce back. For example, 84% of respondents reported that they were either confident or somewhat confident that they would be able to access the finance that they needed over the next six months.

Commenting on the findings, APA chairman Martin Muirhead said: "What is clear from our research is that a significant minority of owner-managed businesses who have managed to pull through the last 12 months are still in survival mode with uncertain trading conditions being the biggest concern to a majority … Over the coming months it is vital that government maintains a flexible and targeted approach to business support focusing resource on those sectors where there is the greatest need."

Company insolvency statistics continue to "defy gravity", according to Peter Hart, a director at insolvency and restructuring specialists PKF GM.

Insolvency figures released last week by the government's Insolvency Service showed a 23% drop in corporate insolvencies compared to April 2020, and a 35% drop compared to April 2019. However, Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVAs), used by individuals in personal financial difficulty, were up 22% for the three months to the end of April 2021, compared to the three-month period ending April 2020.

"This period is definitely the calm before the storm," said Peter Hart. "Insolvency levels will rise when that funding is no longer readily available through the government schemes and creditors are once again able to enforce their rights … The increase in IVAs is an indicator that personal finances are coming under increasing pressure after a year of lockdown and furlough. It's hard to tell from the data, but it's possible that company owners and directors that have been unable to access government support, as well as those that have lost their jobs, are entering formal arrangements such as an IVA to deal with mounting debts."

Written by Rachel Miller

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