Almost half of smaller companies expect their sales and orders to increase in 2013, although one in five fear they will fall, according to a new study.

A survey of more than 500 small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) found those in the South of England were most confident, especially those in professional services, marketing and advertising.

The construction industry was least positive, the poll by the Co-operative Bank found.

Keith Alderson, managing director of corporate and business banking at the Co-operative Bank, said: "SMEs and entrepreneurs are widely acknowledged as vital to Britain's economic recovery, so these results are good news as we head into 2013.

"As the curtain closes on another tough year, it seems many SMEs are now looking forward with a cautious sense of optimism about the challenges for their businesses next year.

"We see this entrepreneurial spirit day in, day out in our dealings with customers and I'm not surprised that SMEs are adapting and exploring new markets to overcome the economic challenges."