Only three in 10 small business owners (30%) predict any form of growth in the next three months – the lowest it has been since the Covid lockdown of January 2021 (26%).

After small business confidence enjoyed a slight peak after Covid restrictions finally fell away by Q2 2022 (37%) – the percentage of business owners predicting growth has doggedly remained flat at 32% to 33% for the last eight quarters – which makes a fall this quarter appear to be significant. 

These findings from Novuna Business Finance form part of its Business Barometer study, which has tracked small business growth forecasts every quarter for the last decade. At the start of each quarter, a representative sample of more than 1,000 small business owners are asked to state their trading outlook for the next three months, capturing a net percentage growth score from those that predict either significant expansion or modest, organic growth. 

At a time when the political narrative of the General Election year is delivering contrasting views on the health of the UK economy, the small business position for April 2024 is clear: The percentage of small businesses currently predicting growth for the three months to 30 June stands at its lowest level for 14 consecutive quarters.

The picture by industry sector revealed some alarming findings for this quarter.

  • For the first time in 10 years, there were five industry sectors where no small business leaders predicted significant expansion at all – a position that is worse than Q2 2020 when the UK went into its first national lockdown (when businesses in one sector predicted no significant expansion). Those that do predict growth for the current quarter only predict modest or organic growth for the spring months. 
  • Confidence in the construction sector has free-fallen to its lowest level since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in Q2 2020 (12%) – perhaps a relative measure of how seriously economic volatility, rising prices and political uncertainty are impacting small business confidence. This time last year, 31% of small construction businesses predicted some form of growth. This has now plummeted to just 15%.
  • Growth forecasts for small business owners in IT and telecoms are also falling sharply.  In Q4 2023, 50% of small businesses predicted growth. This fell to 36% last quarter and has fallen further to 28% this quarter –  the lowest level for this sector since Q2 2022 (21%).
  • Compared to other sectors last quarter there were also significant falls in the percentage of small businesses predicting growth. These included: agriculture, media, legal, real estate, retail and manufacturing.

A regional analysis also revealed clear signs of a sharp geographical divide between areas where growth forecasts were falling and regions where the picture seemed relatively bright. Compared to strong growth forecasts and quarter-on-quarter rises in East Anglia, London, the South East and South West – there were falls in the percentage of enterprises predicting growth in the North East, Scotland and the Midlands. In Wales growth forecasts crashed to just 15%, hitting a two-year low.

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Jo Morris, Head of Insight at Novuna Business Finance commented: “Whilst the growth outlook of small businesses has stood unchanged for nearly two years, we saw early signs last quarter that a fall was on the cards.

“Beyond just looking at current growth status,  our January study also looked at the percentage of UK small businesses that were considering new projects to achieve future growth for the spring and summer months – and here there was a fall. This has played out this quarter, with a fall in the percentage of small businesses predicting growth this quarter.

“The national fall is not sharp but it is certainly a departure on the last two years. Within some sectors there have been sharp falls, which is a significant concern.”