Day 5 of Social Enterprise Futures was all about how we can revitalise communities following the devastating impact of the pandemic. Chaired by Yvonne Field, Founder and CEO of the Ubele Initiative the session featured contributions from Steve Reed OBE MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Jessica Prendergrast, Co-founder and Director of the Onion Collective – a social enterprise working to tackle social, cultural and environmental injustice in Watchet, Somerset.

There was a lot to take in with the session looking at the changes to high-streets, the nature of economic power, the meaning of community, commissioning , the role of the tax system, who is left out of decision making and the shifts in the fundamental structures of the market. Here a just a few of the highlights

The state we are in…

Steve Reed began by stating that “our highstreets are facing an existential crisis” with the pandemic accelerating their decline. He pointed to three key things which he believed have got us to this situation.

  1. The decline in high-street retail
  2. The loss of community spaces
  3. Planning rules

Footfall on our highstreets has reduced significantly with thousands of shops being forced to close, hit by what feels like a perfect storm of crises – austerity, post Brexit staff shortages and an inability to cope with the online retail giants.

Our community spaces have suffered from the effects of austerity – 12,000 libraries have been shut,  1,000 Sure Start Centres closed down and cuts to services have had a disproportionate effect on the poorest and most vulnerable. He pointed out that over the last decade the 10 poorest council areas have suffered funding cuts 18 times higher than the richest.  Planning reforms meanwhile have empowered landowners and developers over communities.

How do we change this?

“I think we need to look at how we push more power down towards communities. You can’t push prosperity out without pushing power down.” – Steve Reed MP

So how do we reverse this decline and put communities at the heart of revitalising our high streets and the economy? Both Steve and Jessica agreed that it is a question of power – who has it, how it is exercised, who is excluded and who benefits.

Steve Reed talked about schemes such as community asset transfers and community wealth building projects such as that undertaken by Preston (the Preston model being one of creating local supply chains and developing working owned co-operatives). He highlighted work carried out in Brixton Market where unused units were given to small businesses, rent free, for six months turning abandoned space into a vibrant commercial hub.

Both speakers agreed that when communities are given the power to take decisions into their own hands then real change can happen, people feel empowered and local economies can begin to thrive again.

One area in which public bodies can change things is through commissioning. The Social Value Act was mentioned by Steve as a tool in which contracts can be shaped so they deliver specific social/environmental outcomes but he was quick to say that the Act needs more teeth.

Attachment economics

“The very best, most inventive and often bravest ideas come from within communities” – Jessica Prendergrast

Jessica approached the discussion by challenging perceptions of community. She countered the belief held by many that community is something parochial and backwards looking, instead centering community action as a vehicle for building a better future.

Community is not only the best hope for change but also needs to be at the heart of a change in how the economy works. She used the idea of ‘attachment economics’ as a new way of thinking about the economy – centering place and community in an attempt to move away from private profit seeking to an economy built on people, care and compassion.

If there has been a common thread running through Futures (apart from the importance of social enterprise of course!) it is that mainstream business and the economic system they sit within have lost their way. Jessica pointed out that waves of free market reforms have seen the private sector move away from the attachments that it once had to community. She said that parts of the economy have been “released from their ties” with communities – citing the examples of private equity owned care homes and big developers owning large chunks of the high street.

Can we create change within the system, or do we need to change the system?

Where there was a bit more debate between the panellists was in how much change is possible within the current system to truly empower communities and enable them take control of their high-streets and local assets. Whilst Steve Reed highlighted policy changes such as abolishing business rates and community led commissioning, Jessica (whilst believing in the validity of such proposals) believed that ideas such as this can only go so far. She argued for a change in the way the economy is structured so it benefits communities over short term rewards for a wealthy few.

She called for more ambitious reforms such as the abolition of corporation tax for social enterprises making the point that communities can’t be left to fight all the battles by themselves – change needing to come from the top as well as being pushed for by the bottom.

Where do social enterprises fit into all this

Social enterprises are businesses deeply rooted in their communities, employing people from the local area, breaking down barriers and reducing inequalities. Jessica sees social enterprises as central to the concept of attachment economics – they are “attached businesses” which understand and are part of the communities they serve. It is social enterprises which provide a demonstrable way of replacing the economic system with something else…