Social Enterprise in the Periphery
They used to call it the ‘Highland Problem’. When unemployment was endemic, housing and roads were poor, and wages were much lower than elsewhere. Future prospects were lacking, so young people left and rarely came back. The sense of powerlessness was palpable.
That wasn’t to say there weren’t attempts to spur on rural development. But many of these interventions failed miserably. Bringing heavy industry to places like Invergordon or Fort William, only succeeded in leaving a legacy of social and economic problems.
What did eventually occur was a realisation that change starts within communities. Empowering local people, to not only advocate, but action the changes they wanted to see in their village was a key part of this revolution.
The Highlands & Islands today is unrecognisable, and the biggest changes have happened in the most far flung areas. Key assets like turbines, hydro-electric power schemes, modernised village halls (and almost the entire Western Isles) are all community owned.
Community and social enterprises have also come to the fore – from the houses we live in to childcare for our wee ones, from petrol stations to bus services, from forests to swimming pools. These are able to exist in rural areas because a community identified a market failure and stepped in. The further away you were from the towns and cities, the more vital and ambitious social enterprise became.
Of course, Scotland’s peripheries are not alone when it comes to these issues. But I sense there’ll be commonalities in how local people have worked to overcome them, for instance:
The time and commitment of individuals is costly – and it can often go unrecognised beyond their village. Prepared to give their time without personal gain and take risks without fear of ridicule, they are the heroes of this quiet revolution.
They seek no reward other than their children and grandchildren being able to grow up, find jobs, and have families in their own villages, glens and islands. For them, there is no more powerful incentive or remuneration.
2. Community Engagement
The fantastic thing about social enterprise is that it often thrives where commercial ventures fail. Why? Because they are owned and run by the customers themselves. They listen and respond to what locals want, and develop supportive community networks because they care about what happens.
3. Entrepreneurial Thinking
Instead of seeing problems in isolation, the approach is to think holistically and long term about challenges and opportunities, resources and assets, and develop a plan for the way forward.
What’s possible is governed by the ingenuity of local people. And here’s the key to it all – if the people and communities in the Highlands were not fantastically entrepreneurial (prepared to bend, break and completely ignore the rules from time to time) there would have been nobody left living in these communities. Innovation and enterprise have been here all along, social enterprise is just the vehicle.
4. Support Infrastructure
Innovative, entrepreneurial thinking has to be shaped and nurtured. It needs the right skills, knowledge, and experience to grow these ideas into real-life solutions with lasting benefit to communities. Building resilience is the objective.
Whether it be social investment, learning and development, policy and legislation, business support, or networks and social capital, the Highlands and Islands have benefited from a strong infrastructure of support that has enabled rural communities to action change.