There’s a snarl-up on the social enterprise brick road

There’s a snarl-up on the social enterprise brick road

Gordon Keenan



Imagine for a moment the situation where you’ve reached that point in your journey, you’ve made that glorious step and you’re in social enterprise heaven (SHE). As far as the eye can see there are communities made up of increasingly successful social enterprises and social entrepreneurs.


On Planet SEH, to quote the Social Enterprise Coalition, ‘a social enterprise is defined not by its legal status but by its nature’. It’s a world of opportunity, where the ‘social mission is embedded in the structure and governance’ and everyone who has chosen social enterprise employment to while away their time appears much more satisfied than they ever were in other forms of employment in that time before. Up here, it’s beautiful, it’s clean, it’s environmentally friendly. Anyone can start a social enterprise here and open doors abound. It truly is a green and pleasant land.


When a newly arrived mathematician started counting recently, his blue sky estimate was that in this part of Planet SEH alone there were some 55,000 social businesses in all creating £27bn per annum worth of happiness to be turned over again and again. This has to be social entrepreneur dreamland. Everyone singing from the same song sheet, everywhere you look, there are successful social entrepreneurs striding confidently from one friendship meeting to another. Research shows this is the yellow brick roadway to ‘prolonged sustainability’. It can’t get better than this.


But while you’ve been dreaming I think I just had a bit of a nightmare. Same planet, same time, same place but in my dreamlike state, I thought I caught sight of one of the largest, longest established social businesses in the UK currently employing over 6,500 staff taking the major decision to offload more than 35% of its employees and to close over half its factories across the country.


In my troubled state I saw images of social enterprise staff queuing on picket lines in central London, in July, but no one from around and about on Planet SEH seemed to be raising the merest eyebrow or even prepared to approach and discuss their problems with them.


When I woke up I realised this must have just been a bad dream because the company in question, Remploy -one of the UK’s largest social enterprise networks, incorporating ten distinct social businesses and employing more than 5,700 disabled staff in 83 factories across the UK with annual sales income in excess of £165m per annum -would never

just be allowed to drop off the social enterprise radar, without a word being said or a hand being raised. The equivalent of 400 new social enterprises disappearing at a stroke.


It has a proud history and almost iconic status as one of the UK’s first real social enterprises to lead the way with an explicit social mission to secure jobs for disabled employees while seeking to develop innovative market opportunities which many have subsequently dared to follow. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Remploy’s current position and future intentions I am pretty certain that those best positioned to represent the social enterprise sector -the chief officers and board members of the Social Enterprise Coalition and Social Enterprise London to name but two- would want to express a view on this matter and to consider with the rest of us the issues that Remploy raises for the future of the sector as a whole.


We know the big bang numbers look good and can get the sector some of the publicity it absolutely deserves, but let’s not slip on the high water mark and forget about the people and the communities that can either prosper with us, or fall behind us as we put on new clothes and become so like the thing we thought we were here to change.


A deafening silence? Not a chance. More a case of pausing for quiet reflection, I’m sure.

Gordon Keenan is executive director of the Urban Partnership Group, which supports social enterprise and tackles social exclusion in Hammersmith and