THESE are depressing times for Business Link Yorkshire. Its staff numbers are drastically shrinking as it approaches its execution next November, yet the need for its services are growing massively.

The tension is etched on the face of chief executive Helen West, whose organisation will be swept away in the Government’s plans to reform the provision of business support. But she remains bravely determined.

Not that there is likely to be a stay of execution, but even as Mrs West is forced this month to oversee yet more job losses within Business Link Yorkshire and a drastic paring down of its funding as it approaches doomsday, she grittily calls on businesses not to get the impression just yet that it is all over.

They still need Business Link Yorkshire’s help and for a while it will still be there to give it, she stresses.

But with the shadow that has darkened her organisation’s prospects, there is no doubt that the numbers seeking its help have fallen drastically.

She says: “In a normal year we would have supported more than 100,000 businesses, but following budget cuts and uncertainty about our future earlier last year, the figure will be more like 60,000 in the year to March 2011.

“Whether that is because people simply aren’t coming forward for help, or have been seeking it elsewhere, is unknown. Whichever, the regional economy is the loser.”

After the first round of redundancies at Business Link Yorkshire, which saw the loss of 125 posts, she is now taking part in a second round which will see a further 185 jobs go by the end of March – leaving a rump of 100 people running services until November.

She says: “The good news is that there will continue to be a service until the new arrangements kick in.

“At one point it looked as if this region may have had a gap between closing Business Link and the new arrangements, but I have now been assured by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills that there will be continuity.”

So, as government cuts generate the seismic transfer from public to private sectors – as an increasing number of well-qualified civil servants seek business help to use their redundancy payoffs to launch their own ventures – how will she do it with shrinking staff?

She says: “We are exploring all sorts of new and different ways of supporting businesses. We are developing a lot of new adviser-led workshops so that businesses, which before may have had an adviser on a one-on-one on-site basis, can be supported within a group needing to tackle similar issues.

“It is a shame because one-to-one help is what a number of businesses valued, but the support will still be there.

“We will continue to have an information centre, based at Barnsley HQ, which offers free advice over the phone. We shall also continue with our high-profile events programme across the region.”

Mrs West was chief executive at Business Link York and North Yorkshire for ten of the 13 years she has had an association with the organisation. “So it is a sad time for me personally,” she says.

In its second year as a county-wide organisation, Business Link Yorkshire hit a peak of helping 116,000 businesses, with sought-after services on skills and international trade.

She doesn’t deny there were hitches.

“Unsurprisingly we had teething problems with systems issues, and then there were the difficulties of bringing people together into one large organisation with new ways of working,” she says.

“They were problems associated with starting from scratch. Not many businesses go from nothing to 300 staff overnight, so there were bound to be hiccups, but by the end of our first year we had services in place, a growing customer base providing an ever-broadening range of services, including skills and innovation, and increasingly we were working closely with local authorities and membership organisations as well as banks and accountants.”

In other words, it took a long time for the wheel to start spinning, but won’t those who now have the task of re-inventing that wheel have the same teething problems?

Mrs West smiles briefly, but then says : “We are pleased that we are going to be around until November so that we can support whoever is involved in setting up the new services. We shall be happy to share our experience and expertise.

“It is important that we have the best possible services for the region’s businesses. It is vital for the local economy.”

At least the uncertainty has now ended. “It is a relief that there is now certainty and clarity. We have had months of uncertainty and speculation and that has been very hard for all the staff at Business Link, as well as for the businesses we helped.

“At least now everyone knows what the situation is and that, most importantly, the service will continue through to November.

“We were served notice that we were going to end in March where other Business Links would be continuing because of different timing of contracts – and that would have meant significant disadvantage to this region’s businesses.

“We need to be innovative in how we deliver services and we need to work even more closely with key partners, particularly local authorities, to target what resource we do have on those businesses where we can have greatest impact.”

Her enthusiasm is admirable in the light of the resource she is left with. In a full year, Business Link Yorkshire used to have a core budget of £28.8 million; now it has £5.6 million to cover April to November.

Clearly there is a severe danger of losing the link in Business Link – and that those who operate the new arrangement will have to start to build up all that was achieved at Business Link’s height all over again – and at a time when business help was never more crucial.

What’s next for regional business?

SO WHAT will replace Business Links? The Department of Information, Business and Skills (DIBS) has broadly outlined its plans.

But until it puts more flesh on the bones, organisations such as the York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce will be unable to allay the uncertainties of its more than 1,000 members.

“We really don’t know enough about it to comment,” says Susie Cawood, the head of the regional chamber.

Basically, DIBS plans to centralise much of the regional work that was done by Business Link.

It is setting up an online business information website and tools tailored to businesses’ needs by April.

These will include a “business start-up hub”, including access to online company registration, notification of public procurement opportunities through a contracts finder, a business tax “dashboard” enabling businesses to get set up for tax and keep abreast of their tax position; and have clearer information on government regulation One big change by September will be to replace Yorkshire’s Barnsley-based advisory service centre – one of a dozen nationally – with a national one, tapping into a network of more than 40,000 experienced business mentors.

It is already known that this scheme will be funded by the British Bankers Association, but a DIBS spokesman could not say in detail who would broadly administer the rest of the operation, although he did point out that all the funding previously paid to Business Links and Regional Development Authorities would more than cover the expense.

But exactly what will be the cost and who will foot the bill? While it is clear that there will be huge savings by reducing regional call centres to a single vantage point, how much of this will be offset by the huge bill for marketing the new help regime to businesses? And will it be able to cope with the demand for its services?

Good questions, concedes the spokesman.

The Government plans to strengthen its plans to push the growth of small businesses with a big expansion in the scope of its proposed New Enterprise Allowance, helping to create up to 40,000 new businesses by 2013.

“We are hoping that by the time it comes towards November all the structures will be there and ready,” he says. “There will be some difficulty with the transition and some people will not be sure where to go but the new arrangement will be quickly learned.”

Hope is a fine thing, but can we afford to rely on it at a time of crisis?