Helping themselves

Helping themselves

By Celia Hodson
Deputy Chief Executive
The Social Enterprise Coalition
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Social Enterprises with cooperative ownership can reverse the decline in communities says Celia Hodson, and highlights how small groups of entrepreneurs across the country are building sustainable solutions to build successful and cohesive communities.

Deprived communities in the UK are tired of waiting for the government to fix their many problems. Tired of the crime, the unemployment, the lack of civic pride; tired of the spiral of poverty and destruction that claims their teenagers and turns their town centres into no-go areas.

Tired, but not yet defeated. Across the country small groups of entrepreneurial residents are pooling their time, money, ideas and energy to come up with real, sustainable solutions to what is rapidly turning into a national crisis. By forming ‘social enterprises’ – businesses with social goals – they can share ownership of community assets and start working to turn their town around.

As social enterprises generate income but are run for all members of the community rather than to maximise the return for traders, they receive widespread community and political support.

At the moment six in ten of the country’s high streets have been classed as in decline. With almost 90% of the UK’s population living in towns and cities that means half the country is currently facing the issues raised by this sort of urban decay.

And town centre decline doesn’t just mean you have to drive a little further to shop.  Studies show that socio-economic and geographical poverty are mutually reinforcing and often become entrenched over time. As infrastructure decays so does community pride; leading to litter, vandalism and ultimately crime.

Factories close and cheap out-of-town supermarkets help to bankrupt local shops, not only making life difficult for people without transport but amplifying unemployment levels and eating away at community feeling. Buildings stand empty for years, attracting gangs of teenagers and street drinking. Over time the majority of well-educated socially mobile families move away. Potential investors are scared off by the empty, shabby streets and the high crime rate and so successive generations are locked into this vicious circle of poverty and social exclusion.

But communities are becoming aware of this link and are now fighting social exclusion by looking at the socio-geographic causes. They are discovering that a cooperative approach to shared problems is the best route to tackle some of the major causes of poverty.

By creating an environment in which jobs will be generated and by encouraging a more community-focused atmosphere they can vastly speed up regeneration.

And unlike most regeneration schemes the process itself is a key step towards achieving the goal of community cohesion. Because the social enterprise method of persuading the whole town to pitch in ensures enthusiasm for the project trickles down through the entire community – even to traditionally hard to reach teens.

A good example is West Kilbride, a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland that until a decade ago was suffering from severe decline after local industry and most local retailers shut their doors for good.

Despite only having a population of 5,000 and a very small retail centre there were over 20 boarded up shops along the high street.  According to locals there was a lack of civic pride, widespread pessimism and high levels of unemployment and vandalism. As the town was not considered a priority by the main funding bodies it was unable to access much-needed grant capital. The council wanted to turn the old shops into small, cheap housing but the locals were sure that would just increase the number of poor families living in the town without leading to real regeneration.

Finally a group of local residents, tired of waiting for help, decided to take the matter into their own hands. At a public meeting they looked at the town’s assets, realised there could be no return of traditional retail and industry and decided to specialise. In response to the growth of tourism in the wider region they agreed to re-brand West Kilbride as a craft town.

The group pooled their resources, formed a company and started buying dilapidated shops at low prices. Nearly the whole town pitched in, raising funds, scrubbing, painting and generally taking responsibility for improving their own lives. An environmental off-shoot of the initiative hung hundreds of flower baskets along the high street and turned an old quarry into a wildlife conservation area. On the back of their hard work, detailed business plan and initial successes they managed to secure external funding and have since gone from strength to strength.

Now the community owns nine studios (and has attracted famous artists to rent them) as well as a gallery, gift shop and a former church, which is currently being turned into an exhibition centre and performance space. Once this is complete the West Kilbride Initiative believes the company will be generating enough income to be self-sustaining.

Unsurprisingly, as the project progresses civic pride has increased and vandalism has dropped dramatically. In the last couple of years over 350 new houses have been built and a number of young families have moved in.

As the town attracts ever more businesses and tourists, unemployment with all its associated ills continues to drop and young people are able to grow up surrounded by a perfect example of hard work paying off. West Kilbride is now a nice place to live and those who live there have nicer lives.  It is a model of community-led regeneration and has won numerous awards for its accomplishments.

But it is not unique and its success is being replicated around the country. In Northern Ireland’s Irvinestown, 16 successful local business leaders got together to form a social enterprise which is now the town’s largest commercial landlord and a major employer. And the Agora project, named after the ancient Greek notion of a focal marketplace, and funded by the European Social Fund, is just one of the groups working to empower deprived local communities to follow sustainable social enterprise models to manage their own marketplaces.

Agora believes that town centres need to meet the needs of the whole community in a sustainable manner to truly succeed. Though it is early days Agora aims to help eight pilot towns replicate the most successful models of regeneration.

The Association of Town Centre Management predicts that in the next 5-10 years there will be 100 town management organisations operating fully as social enterprises.

At the Social Enterprise Coalition we are delighted to hear that this year’s shortlist for the national Enterprising Britain Award includes the impressive Caernarfon social enterprise. With its famous medieval castle, the town once vied with Cardiff to become the capital city of Wales, but over the decades fell into disrepair.

In 1992 the Galeri Caernarfon Cyf social enterprise was formed and since then the company has restored over 20 run-down properties, including the town’s biggest eyesores and let them out to paying tenants. The restorations have attracting residents, retailers and tourists and breathed new life into a community formerly blighted by poverty. The rents help pay for subsequent restorations with the surplus going towards the ‘Galeri Creative Enterprise Centre’ which hosts community arts events. As well as over 40 direct employment opportunities the enterprise spirit fostered by Galeri in Caenarfon has helped create around 80 additional jobs in the area, and the number is growing every year.

We hope more communities will decide to take matters into their own hands to reclaim the future they deserve.