Yesterday, I was in Birmingham for my first meeting as an elected member of the Council of national social enterprise support organisation, Social Enterprise UK (SEUK). The list of Council members, available if you follow the above link, hasn’t been updated yet but I am on the council as an elected representative of SEUK’s social enterprise members.
Readers won’t be surprised to learn that one of yesterday’s major discussions was around the future of social enterprise support in the UK. Given my role as a representative rather than a journalist, it would be impolite to report details of what fellow council members and SEUK staff had to say (they are, of course, very welcome to contribute comments to this blog) but I think it’s reasonable to report that – broadly speaking – a grand plan for preserving regional support did not emerge from our debate.
The big problem is money. Prior to the election of the current coalition government, social enterprise support in the nine English regions had been funded primarily through Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) with additional grants coming from voluntary sector infrastructure programmes such as Capacity Builders.
Unfortunately the RDAs were political constructs and the political party that constructed them is now in opposition. London is a real place, where the elected leader, Mayor Boris Johnson, has taken the choice not to provide resources for social enterprise support. The other regions – with the possible exception of Yorkshire and the Humber – aren’t places, they’re lines on a map. And given that New Labour’s plans for regional assemblies never became anything more than a twinkle in John Prescott’s eye – maybe not a concept to consider for too long – there’s nothing much left of the them but some lists of Members of the European Parliament.
This presents clear practical challenges if existing regional support organisations are looking to replace RDA money from elsewhere in the public sector. There’s an active ongoing discussion about the demise of the South West’s support agency, Rise, but whatever else has gone on we should all have some sympathy for the members of the Rise staff team faced with the option of pitching to Cornwall County Council for potential funding for their service based in Exeter. Exeter to Truro takes the same amount of time by train as London to Darlington and I imagine Social Enterprise London (SEL) aren’t going to attempt to offer a regionally-focused service in Darlington.
This is not a problem that can be solved by either SEUK or by regional support agencies themselves. During the relative boom times, there was wide diversity in funding from RDAs and, therefore, similar diversity in the services delivered by support agencies in each region. Even so, my guess is that it’s unlikely that even the smaller regional support agencies have a sustainable future based on membership fees for delivering support within the lines drawn on a map by New Labour’s regionalists.
That in itself raises plenty of questions for a range of what, in the New Labour era, would’ve been called stakeholders.
For social entrepreneurs/people running social enterprises the most immediate questions are: ‘Do we care (about the impending demise of regional support)?’ and ‘What are we going to do about it?’
For the government, central government in particular, it’s more or less the same questions prefaced with ‘Given you widely state commitment to the growth of social enterprise’.
For the organisations that currently deliver social enterprise support in the regions themselves, the question is whether they can find a sustainable model that goes beyond (just) being the regional organisation that supports social enterprises. Clearly SEL are better placed than most due to their existing consultancy service but as chief exectuive, Allison Ogden-Newton points out, being reasonably well prepared for times of scarcity doesn’t mean it’s easy. Social Enterprise West Midlands (SEWM), our hosts for yesterday’s council meeting, have launched the social enterprise directory, BuySe, in a bid to diversify their offer.
Whether or not the English regions mean anything much in general to the people who live in them – compared to villages, towns, cities and counties – there is clearly a significant amount of organisational knowledge, experience and goodwill that will be lost if regional agencies simply cease to exist. But what can the social enterprise movement do about that and, if regional bodies do disappear, how should social enterprises and social entrepreneurs be supported in the future?