The proportion of small businesses that see growth opportunities from the domestic UK market has risen sharply from 66% to 80% in just 12 months, whilst those looking to trade overseas has stagnated, according to new research from Novuna Business Finance.

The findings from the quarterly Business Barometer study come at a time when overseas travel has been seriously disputed and the European Commission has claimed that the damage caused by the UK’s exit from the EU was becoming more evident. Rather than the rise in red tape, paperwork and broader checks pointing to a decline for the UK small business sector, the Novuna Business Finance data suggests small businesses are switching focus to growth opportunities in the domestic market – a move which also supports the UK economy at large.

The national poll of 1,201 small business leaders revealed:

  • Eight in 10 UK small businesses (80%) are now looking to open up new markets within the UK – with enterprises in construction (94%), legal (91%), agriculture (88%) and hospitality (87%) pushing hardest to open up local markets. Furthermore, there were also significant increases from Summer 2021 in manufacturing (up from 54% to 68%), transport and distribution (55% to 71%) IT/telecoms (64% to 79%) and retail (64% to 76%). In every UK sector, at least two in three small businesses are now proactively seeking new markets and new growth opportunities within the UK market. 

Aside from chaos at the ferry ports and airports and the headache of red tape, the research also suggests sustainability factors may be playing their part in encouraging some small businesses to look closer to home to secure growth. For businesses that were taking steps to improve their position on carbon neutrality, 81% were looking to open up new markets within the UK.

Despite talk of devolution and Brexit, small businesses in Scotland and Welsh were most likely to be looking for growth opportunities within the UK (87% and 84% respectively), whilst London enterprises were the least likely (73%). London small businesses were those most likely to look for growth in the USA (29%) and Europe (27%).

For small businesses looking overseas for growth opportunities, there was little positive change on July 2021 - although the EU remains the top overseas growth market for UK enterprises. The appeal of North America and European markets outside the EU remains unchanged, suggesting little meaningful progress has been made opening up markets beyond the EU. No small businesses are currently looking to trade with Russia.

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Growth opportunities

Jo Morris, Head of Insight at Novuna Business Finance, said: "Whilst small businesses are operating in volatile and uncertain market conditions, our quarterly data suggests the proportion of enterprises predicting growth has remained remarkably stable for the last five consecutive quarters. 

"This consistency is the result of small businesses embracing change and being agile. Like UK holidaymakers, that have experienced chaos at the airports and ferry ports this summer, small businesses also face a rising level of red tape and border checks to do business overseas. 

"Enterprises have not lost faith in the EU market for the long term, but they have redoubled efforts this summer to maximise new market opportunities on their doorstep. In an age when managing costs is a top issue for many enterprises, the renewed focus on the domestic market will make financial sense for many business owners - plus the reduction in travel is probably good news for the planet."

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