Big Society Capital – playing the long game

Big Society Capital – playing the long game
Locality, by Steve Wyler

I still have a paper written in 1999 by Iain Tuckett from Coin Street Community Builders, where he argued for a £500m national investment vehicle for community enterprise.

“The national intermediary would not itself become involved in small-scale loans but would lend on to regional and local intermediaries,” wrote Iain. “These more local intermediaries would also specialise in the third sector and thereby tailor their products more closely to that particular market in their locality.”

Well, it took thirteen years, but finally Big Society Capital was launched earlier this month. In many respects, yes, it does represent the fulfillment of Iain’s vision. Big Society Capital will have £600m, of which £400m will come from dormant accounts and the remainder will be commercial bank finance. It will lend money to intermediaries, such as the Social Investment Business or the Key Fund in Yorkshire, which will then be able to make investments in front-line organisations, including we hope the members of Locality.

This could be a big opportunity to capitalise our sector, and drive forward growth. But, in practice, will it really live up to expectations? I have some questions:

Will the finance help or hinder small or medium community-based organisations? There is little doubt that high levels of debt, with punitive interest rates, would be a disaster for our movement, operating as it does in marginal economies. The learning of the last decade is that individualised and responsible funding packages, combining loan and grant and equity-style finance, are much more likely to nurture resilient and high impact organisations.

Will there be enough support to help organisations travel the journey, to reach the point where they have capability to use new types of finance? £10m has been made available for an Investment and Contract Readiness Fund so that’s a good start, but only a small start. The need is probably ten times greater, and must not be focused solely on the big players.

Will this new finance reduce or increase dependency on the State? The intention is that a great deal of Big Society Capital investment will be for organisations wanting to play a bigger role in public service delivery. But given the hugely uncertain state of public sector procurement, especially at a time of spending cuts, that’s an investment proposition fraught with risk.

Finally, will this finance end up distorting the very nature of social enterprise? Certainly, if Big Society Capital seeks too high a rate of return to appease its private backers, it will struggle to generate sufficient deal-flow. The temptation then will be to direct the funds towards for-private-profit enterprises, and justify this mission-drift by asserting these are ‘social businesses’ because, for example, they operate in deprived areas.

This last concern is perhaps the biggest risk it seems to me – a subtle, or not so subtle, erosion of our values and vision.

I am pleased that David Robinson from Locality member Community Links was appointed to sit on the oversight body Big Society Trust, and that Hugh Rolo, Director of Innovation at Locality, was also appointed to serve on the Advisory Board. They are, it seems to me, the guardians of the flame first ignited by Iain Tuckett all those years ago.

It has taken far too long to get to this point, and it feels that this is still just the beginning, but that just goes to show, that as well as tackling the immediate challenges (and goodness knows there are plenty of those for our movement), sometimes we also need to play the long game.

Here are two comments on this blog.

Ben McCall

Unfortunately Steve’s post is only excellent if you agree with the Big Society and its (gross oversimplification, but in summary) attack on the welfare state. Locality and has made a strategic error in becoming so associated with BS, as have the members who are delivering elements of it. As a movement, we have not been critical enough of terms like “dependent” now or as they emerged over the past ten years.

We are the state. Of course it needs reclaiming and certainly criticising when it is inadequate and paternalist, like most development trusts do directly or indirectly in their work. But the answer is not to throw our hand in with the people who justify inequality as the inevitable bi-product of a dynamic market.

Surely Locality leaders and members realise that it will take more than minor policy tweaks to change larger organisations’ privelige, or other forms of privelige for that matter?

Trusts and settlements have shown that we can achieve real and positive change for our communities, rather than moaning on the sidelines. That does not mean we should become short term pragmatists, but retain a more profound critique of ‘the system’ and root all that we do to our long term aims.

While we are distracted by minor policies, the next iceberg of ‘naked credit default swaps’ – and other variations on the ‘complex financial instruments’ that destroyed New Labour’s “end of boom and bust” delusion – is looming under the water.

We can do something to prepare for this with our communities who will suffer most; but it is not helping to peddle the “we’re all in it together, we just have to tighten our belts and be a bit more competitive” guff that insults our intelligence, let alone our experience.

If our movement is anything it is practical. We now need to work with our partners such as NEF on a long term strategy (eg. The Great Transition) and base our short and medium term objectives on contributing to that.

Hugh Rolo

Not sure if I can deal with all the wide range of comments above -Locality and BiG Society is perhaps part of a wider debate about engagement or non engagement –I believe we need to continue to engage in order influence policy and try to come up with workable solutions.

We continue to campaign on other issues, Community allowance, Just finance, around the bigger picture and perhaps can claim some contributory success around the Social value Act and the Localism Act. Too early to tell quite what opportunities will flow from the localism
Act but at least we have some clear avenues to engage around rights to challenge, bid and build.

BSC is but one piece of the jigsaw where as we know other pieces are missing, available when needed, hijacked by other players, or belong to a different puzzle–Locality members all over the country are coming up with creative solutions to work with what we have got.

I think its worth a look at initial range of BSC investments to get an understanding of the broad range of investments they are considering–note also the investment partners helping to put together a cocktail of funding.

I agree with Alan that getting the right mix of equity and debt is always going to be important and I believe BSC will provide good long term finance to the SIFIs under some kind of quasi equity provision which should enable them to offer similar terms to social and community enterprises.

More dependent on the State? Or the State more dependent on social enterprise to deliver? It seems to me that most Locality members are operating deprived communities where the economy is substantially public sector –the opportunity, unpalateable as it may be, is to find cheaper ways of delivering better quality services and as the cuts continue to bite especially in local government co-production/co-design of service delivery must be one of the options. Aligning social finance to well thought out outcomes based service delivery seems like the best opportunity right now.

There is an implicit drive to scale in some of the thinking behind social investment which if it relates to scale of long term ambition I have no problem with–if it muddles supposed “economies of scale”, Prime Contractors, ease of administration with quality outcomes then I am dead against. For the very small organisations social finance may never be appropriate–working out the appropriate size of the next step is always the issue for any ambitious organisation