What might the future hold for community business?

Community businesses help poor communities to thrive. But are they at risk of being captured by a managerial class dedicated to empire-building rather than social change? Or will there be an encroachment by private capital? Steve Wyler highlights new research which is endeavouring to find the answers.

A little while ago I visited the Selby Trust, a community business operating from a disused school in Tottenham, north London. There is something about this organisation which feels especially vibrant and alive. It is partly the mix of activities: enterprise start-ups, managed office space, environmental activism, sports clubs, community debates, participatory budgeting. But more than that it is the spirit of the Trust, embodied in its motto: ‘many cultures - one community’.

Unlike some, it really does practise what it preaches. There are 20 members of staff and they encompass 12 different ethnicities and speak 22 different languages. The Trust attracts great people, including the CEO Sona Mahtani, who brings modesty, human warmth and tenacity to her role. On the Trust board are a film producer and an architect and someone who runs a local boxing club while running an international business and someone else who worked in global finance and now is a teacher.  They are all in different ways community activists, and, like Bernie Grant, the UK’s first black MP, who supported Selby Centre in its early days, they are all driven by a shared ambition to create ‘a place in the community that people can afford and can call their own’. 

These organisations matter

To my mind, these sorts of organisations really matter. They are an expression of something positive, something hopeful, in communities where people have been treated much of the time as if they were the problem, some kind of social virus to be isolated and contained. They are a means through which people, deprived of a seat at the tables where decisions are made which affect their lives, are able to take action and take back control, even if in a small way. They are generating wealth, economic and social, in poor communities, and keeping it circulating there. The fact that the Trust has survived for over 25 years is impressive in itself, and it has never become lazy or complacent. You only have to spend a few minutes talking to Sona to realise that she and her colleagues are hungry to do even better, to do even more.

Community businesses are an expression of something positive, something hopeful, where people have been treated as if they were the problem

The Selby Trust is not alone. There are many hundreds, even thousands of community businesses across the country which share something of the Selby spirit, which are combining entrepreneurial activity with social action, sometimes to great effect. I am proud to be chair of one such organisation, Community Links in Newham in east London. And it is not something new. If we look back in time, we can find examples of a similar impulse going back hundreds of years, generation after generation, as I’ve tried to describe in a recent book

But what about the future? If we take individual examples, things can look precarious. The Selby Trust for example has a £1m turnover and is able to generate three quarters of that through rental income and hire of space. But its lease runs out in four years, and so far, disgracefully, the local council has resisted all attempts to negotiate an extension. Variations on this theme can be found elsewhere; the idea of the ‘enabling state’, so persuasively advocated by the Carnegie UK Trust and others, has yet to become a reality on the ground in most places.

Business confidence is at 63%, despite the continuing pressures of austerity

And yet overall the community business sector as a whole seems to be riding high. Business confidence is at 63% according to a recent survey commissioned by Power to Change, despite the continuing pressures of austerity and the general malaise which has infected so much of the social sector. 

But will this continue, or might things go into reverse? Might we see the community business movement captured by a managerial class dedicated to empire-building rather than social change, as has happened with many housing associations and larger charities? Or perhaps, in parts of the sector where there is real money to be made, will we see an encroachment by private capital, as happened with so many building societies, which eventually abandoned ownership and control by local communities entirely?

How can we shape our future?

But most importantly, what can we do in the coming years, not just to avoid things going wrong but also to shape the future we want to see? We have seen advances in recent years, but these didn’t happen by accident. They were due to well-targeted efforts by the Plunkett Foundation to support community shops and community pubs, by Locality to promote community asset transfer, by the National Community Land Trust Network to promote the community land trust model, by Co-ops UK and Locality to promote community shares. And I don’t think we should underestimate the role of central and local government, and independent grant-makers, which can hugely accelerate change when they are willing to act as generous allies.

So, where might the next set of advances come from? It is often said that the future already exists, but is on the periphery. If this is true, what exciting and fresh models can we find on the periphery, and what will be needed to bring them centre stage? And at the same time, what can be done to sustain and build on what is already well known and is working well? Forum for the Future has been funded by Power to Change to carry out an inquiry into the future of community business, to try to answer these questions and envision what a future healthy, vibrant and sustainable community business marketplace might look like, and the future role it will play in a thriving civil society.

At the heart of this project is a desire for this vision to be informed by the diversity of community businesses already working to create this future, so, if you have ideas or insights you would like to share, Forum for the Future would be delighted to hear from you: do please contact Daniel Ford at D.Ford@forumforthefuture.org

Header image: At the Selby Trust's free Sun Dials workshop participants learn to make a solar panel phone charger