‘StartUp Britain’, and the beauty of bureaucracy

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by Martin Jonson

For University students the summer period has roughly three months when one has the opportunity to either earn money, do something to further your own future employability, or, ideally, both. Alternatively, you can sponge of your parents and play games all day whilst boasting about your ever increasing thumb dexterity on Twitter. I opted for the former.

After coming up with a business idea that I could start with a budget of £6,000; researching my market; doing sales projections and scenario planning; consulting with experienced ‘entrepreneurs’; securing start-up capital; researching equipment, suppliers and storage; I had only one thing left on my to-do list: secure the relevant licenses from the local council. Since I was only planning to run this business during the summer months – my idea is seasonal, which fits in well with my studies – time was of the essence.  I got in touch with the relevant council departments as early as possible.

For my particular business I would need to get my storage facility and vehicle checked by a food hygiene controller (I would be selling ice cream), before applying for a street trader’s license. Firstly, the rules and regulations that apply to food hygiene are about as clearly stated as a bowl of mud.  While the council has various information packs that they gladly send out, these contain only vaguely worded bullet points and references to legislation. Second, the man who I spoke to at the council pointed out that there was a bit of a ‘catch 22’ – you can’t really be sure that you’ll pass their assessment before you purchase everything and sign your lease.  For obvious reasons that’s something you don’t want to do if you’re not confident that you will pass.

My main grudge lies not with the hygiene regulations, ridiculous as they are, but with the unfathomable number of people involved in answering a seemingly simple question. Edinburgh is divided into a number of zones within which you can apply for permission to trade (as an ice cream vendor), and any one trader can apply for a maximum of two zones. These zones were devised with motor driven vehicles in mind, and as such you would not be able to trade within the park areas regardless of the fact that they seem to be included in the zones, simply because there are no roads. My intended vehicle, however, did not have an engine and would legally be allowed on the park pathways. My question was: would I be allowed to trade from these pathways?

I contacted the licensing department on the 3rd of March, who promptly replied to let me know that my query had been passed on to someone else, let’s call them person A. Roughly a week went by with no response from person A. I decided to give them a ring. They acknowledged that my e-mail had been received and apologised for the delay in their response – fair play – and mentioned that I would need to speak to another person, B, within the parks department, before changing their mind and stating that it would be better if they did it for me.

I waited for person A to get back to me and again a week went by. Since I had written down the name of person B, I decided to give them a ring myself on the Monday morning, and again that same afternoon. No answer. I tried again Tuesday morning, lunch and afternoon. then on Wednesday afternoon. I finally had a missed call on Thursday morning. I tried to phone person B again later that same Thursday but there was no answer. It wasn’t until the Friday that I finally got to speak to them, and was informed that this was not up to them and instead I was told to contact yet another person, C, whose e-mail address I was given.

I e-mailed person C as soon as my phone conversation with person B had ended, around 10.00am on Friday morning. Halfway through the following week I had still not heard back from them. I searched the council website for their number. Again it was acknowledged by person C that they had received my e-mail but failed to reply, and yet again I was told that this was not within their area of responsibility. I would need to contact – you guessed it – person A! Now, I last spoke to person A around the 10th of March (after initially contacting them on the 3rd), during which conversation they had promised to look into the matter and get back to me. Itt was now the 4th of April. As I had yet to hear from them, I phoned again to see how the matter was progressing and was told that it was right on the top of their to-do list. I would hear back within a couple of days. Fantastic news!

On the 11th of April, a full week later, I finally got my reply: I would not be permitted to trade within the park areas. No business for me and no ice cream for the sun loving citizens of central Edinburgh. While, understandably, I was disappointed by their decision, that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I fully understand that it is within the council’sl, and its residents’, interests to ensure that public areas are not flooded with traders. What I take issue with is the staggering number of people who were involved in making this decision, the amount of time involved, and the complete lack of interest shown by those involved. Even if I had been granted the permission to trade within the park areas, I would have still lost several weeks worth of trading due to the ridiculous amount of time I had to spend waiting for their decision.

I would also like to ask: how is it possible that so many people appear to be involved in licensing, regulation and permissions, yet no one has the time to read through official documentation to ensure that it is consistent, professional, and free of spelling mistakes? Throughout this process I’ve read through several council issued documents, and nearly all of them contain at least a handful of spelling mistakes; many of them have atrocious grammar (and I’m far from an expert myself); and a good few are written in a highly unprofessional, conversational tone.

I hope that the government’s StartUp Britain campaign involves streamlining councils, as it seems that they have a campaign of their own: HoldBack Britain.