Social enterprise is part of economic rebalancing act

Belfast Telegraph, by John McMullan


The Re-balancing the NI Economy 2019 report launched last week is the first comprehensive survey of the social enterprise sector since 2013. Based on responses from a broad range of organisations, it clearly demonstrates that social enterprise has become a fundamental element of a re-balanced and more plural economy in Northern Ireland.

It also reinforces that social enterprises are real businesses, but their overriding social purpose ensures that they do business differently, making a real and lasting difference to peoples’ lives.

As the report highlights, the sector makes a significant economic contribution.

When combining direct, indirect and induced impacts, it is worth £625m to the Northern Ireland economy.

Its employment base has grown from 12,200 in 2013 to 24,860 in 2018; and equivalent growth in turnover has increased from £592.7m in 2013 to £980m in 2018.

And 44% of the organisations surveyed commenced trade in the last five years and 25% within the last two years.

In addition, 43% of the organisations surveyed are led by women; a figure consistent across the social enterprise sector in the UK as a whole. This clearly demonstrates growth in the sector despite much political and economic uncertainty.

It is also worth noting that 53% of organisations employ half their workforce from their immediate locality.

This places the sector as an important vehicle for delivering draft Programme for Government outcomes around disadvantage, deprivation, reducing economic inactivity and delivering greater innovation.

Many social enterprises are led by those who have recognised an area of society for which they wish to make an impact, both in their local communities and beyond.

From creating children’s books to providing bottled water, from constructing panels for vehicles to catering, the social economy is leading the way.

More and more private and public sector organisations now include social enterprises in their supply chain while we have seen an increasing number of young people wanting to work for organisations who deliver more for their local community than pure financial profit.

The report also makes clear that social enterprises face the same pressures and challenges as other SMEs including access to finance, marketing skills and continued uncertainty as a result of the absence of an Assembly and the UK’s decision to exit the European Union.

As Northern Ireland moves towards a more plural re-balancing of its economy, there remains a missing piece in our economic jigsaw. We need an economic model that values social impact as an equivalent to price and quality.

To achieve this, we need to align Northern Ireland with the other regions of the UK by introducing a Social Value Act, putting a statutory duty on the public sector to demonstrate and maximise the social impact of its spending priorities. It is time to do business differently and social enterprise can deliver.