Guide: sources of help for small firms in tough times

Business owner worried about rising costs during cost of living crisis

The stubbornly high rates of inflation and continuing political turmoil mean things continue to be tough for small businesses and sole traders. Whatever hurdles you're facing, however, there is help out there. Here's our guide to some of the resources and support available to small firms in the UK

How to get expert help

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are supporting local businesses facing the current cost-of-living challenges - their network of 38 Growth Hubs have already helped over two million businesses in the past year.

Growth Hubs work with public and private sector partners - including the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), universities, Enterprise Zones and banks - to connect businesses to the help that best meets their needs.

Joining a small business group can is another way to get expert advice. The Federation of Small Businesses, for example, offers free legal and HR advice to its members; freelancer body IPSE also has tax and legal helplines for members.

How to keep your business afloat when times are tough


How to find a business mentor

An experienced business mentor can help SME owners to get their business in the best shape to ride out economic storms and find ways to overcome challenges. Mentorsme is a free online gateway for SMEs, giving users access to all the main mentoring organisations and networks in the UK, searchable by location and business stage.

Be the Business is a service for small firms, providing free business mentors as well as online advice and tools. The mentoring support is available over 12 weeks or 12 months. Eligible businesses must have at least one employee and can be based anywhere in the UK.

How to get support from other business owners

Other business owners can be a valuable source of ideas and support when times are hard. A great place to start is to join the Donut Small Business Collective - a friendly and supportive Facebook group created by the team behind the Donut websites. Members are UK-based start-ups, small businesses and people with a business idea - what they have in common is a desire to learn from and share experience and knowledge with other business owners.

How to find grants and funding

The government website has information about grants, loans and other sources of finance for small businesses . You can search by business size and sector to find grants aimed at businesses like yours. There are many local grants so searching by location could help you find schemes in your area.

There are also grants for all sorts of specific things such as the gigabit broadband voucher scheme for rural businesses, grants for buying low emission vehicles and even funding for attending or exhibiting at overseas trade shows. R&D Tax Credits are also worth investigating if your business is in science or technology.

How to get help with business energy bills

The Energy Bill Relief Scheme helped businesses with energy costs between 1 October 2022 and 31 March 2023. The discount was automatically be added to energy bills.

This scheme was replaced on 1 April on 2023 by the Energy Bills Discount Scheme. Again, this discount is automatically applied to eligible businesses. The Energy Bills Discount Scheme provides support to fewer businesses than the previous scheme. Most non-domestic customers will not get any support and any support is likely to be significantly reduced.

If you’re still struggling to afford your gas and electricity bills, contact your supplier to discuss ways to pay. You should also shop around as prices can vary widely between suppliers. Remember, if you're a microbusiness, you can only be billed for energy you've used in the past 12 months.

How to get advice on managing debt

Business Debtline is run by national charity the Money Advice Trust. It is a free debt advice service specifically aimed at small business owners and people who are self-employed.

The British Business Bank also has a guide to sources of advice and support for business owners struggling with debt.

If you can’t keep up repayments on a business loan or a mortgage, it’s vital that you talk to your bank or lender straight away. Restructuring or refinancing the loan or looking for alternative finance, such as invoice finance, may enable you to pay your debts and keep your company afloat.

If your company can't pay back a Bounce Back Loan, the government will ensure the bank receives payment for the money lent if your business cannot pay it back. However, this will only happen if your company enters liquidation.

How to get help if you can't pay your business rates

If you’re struggling to pay your business rates, you may be able to get help from your local council. One option is to arrange to pay in instalments. It’s also worth checking if you are eligible for one of the business rates relief schemes. There are schemes for various types of business including small businesses, rural businesses, charities and retailers and hospitality businesses.

There is also hardship relief for those businesses that are struggling to pay. To be eligible, you must prove to your local council that you would be in financial difficulties without hardship relief and that giving hardship relief to you is in the interests of local people. Contact your local council if you think you’re eligible.

Rates relief is handled differently in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

How to get help if you can’t afford to pay your taxes

If you’re worried about being able to pay the tax you owe, contact HMRC. One option is that you could pay what you owe in instalments using HMRC’s Time to Pay arrangement. You can set up Self Assessment Time to Pay on your Government Gateway account if:

  • You have filed your latest tax return
  • You owe less than £30,000
  • You are within 60 days of the payment deadline
  • And you plan to pay your debt off within the next 12 months or less

Call the Self Assessment helpline (0300 200 3822) if you owe more than £30,000 or need longer to pay. How long your Time to Pay arrangement will last depends on how much you owe and what you can afford to pay each month. You can also call the Payment Support Service on 0300 200 3835.

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