My journey through the Highlands & Islands so far…..

 

The Growth at the Edge project (aka ‘the rural one’) is all about building a picture of the health and wellbeing benefits of social enterprise activity in the Highlands & Island of Scotland. As I have journeyed to some of the most remote and rural communities in Scotland in the past few months, I have been keeping a photo diary of my adventures….

I’ve met the most amazing community spirited people dealing with major transport issues, lack of services and issues that us urban folk may take for granted, such as access to fresh fruit and vegetables, or being able to reach a doctors surgery. Some rural inhabitants see themselves as the ‘forgotten people’, with ever depleting populations and a lack of vital infrastructure.

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A run down filling station in Helmsdale, the only one in the area

 

In spite of such challenges, the people of rural communities are defiant and resilient, both making the most of what they have and continually fighting for more. They are coming together and building new community centres to create meeting places and to provide activities for all ages…….

 Atlantic Centre, Isle of Luing and the Seaboard Centre, Balintore

They are encouraging people to curate their heritage, and are fiercely proud of their history….

The Mermaid of the North and Fish Sculptures, celebrating the fishing folklore of the Seaboard Villages

They are bringing education, arts and crafts to their communities, utilising and nourishing the skills that they have in their populations…

Art projects and handmade woodwork at Cantray Park, Cantray

As well as offering employment to people in the local community, including vulnerable groups and those in need……

Shetland Soap Company, Lerwick and The Elgin Youth Cafe, Elgin

They are encouraging people to ‘grow local, eat local’, with many communities investing in land for traditional crofting and market gardens and education to promote healthy living….

Blooming polytunnels at Cantray Park, Cantray and healthy living education at Elgin Youth Development Group, Elgin

And they are also investing in renewable energy and the recycling of materials to aid the sustainability of their communities for the future of their generations……

       Wind Turbines and a brand new ReStore furniture upcycle workshop at Cothrom, South Uist

I have met some very interesting service users along the way…….

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Some happy ducks and geese using the pond at the aviary at Cantray Park, Cantray (some had flown all the way from Canada just to use their service)

And I’ve literally been to the very edge of civilisation…..

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Views from sunny Lerwick, Shetland

But what is most exciting is that this is only the beginning of my project and I’m looking forward to uncovering so much more! My journey will be taking me to many more remote and rural communities, all with their own stories, of which I hope to share with you along the way!

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Lost in the supermarket? The role of big business in social enterprise

 

Reflecting on my visit to The Gathering I was reading over the notes I made and was struck by the prevalence given to the private sector in at least two of the workshops I attended. In the session run by Joseph Rowntree Foundation there was lots of discussion about how important it is to hold private companies to account as we try to tackle poverty in Scotland. This is particularly relevant with regards to banking, private rental sector and energy, the cost of which contribute to the poverty premium and contribute to the high cost of living which is partly responsible for poverty in the UK today.

The second session with a consideration of the private sector was a session called ‘From ‘Asking’ to ‘Earning’ – Opportunities for social enterprises to work in the world of retail’ which was run by Asda and Social Investment Scotland. The main thrust of the session was to highlight the new ‘Asda Social Enterprise Supplier Development Academy’ which will provide social enterprises the opportunity to ‘strengthen their understanding of supermarket retail and refine their commercial and marketing skills, with the potential to get their products on supermarket shelves in Scotland…or even beyond’. SIS and Asda were joined by Sylvia Douglas, the founder of MsMissMrs social enterprise who is applying to attend the academy.

asda

Without wanting to demonise the whole of the private sector I did have some concerns about the role they might play as they develop relationships with social enterprise and aired these with my CommonHealth colleagues which resulted in an interesting debate:

On the one side of the debate is a view that reflected the discussion in the JRF session I attended- that involvement of the private sector allows social enterprises to improve the private sector, promote a stronger social conscience and hold them to account in their less ethical practices. Social enterprises will also benefit from access to a large retail market, the importance of which was emphasised by Sylvia who wanted to be able to focus her attention on delivering her social mission rather than spending valuable time and energy at small scale retail events. Despite my concerns it would be disingenuous not to consider the view from social enterprise and recognise the benefits of having an higher income in order to pursue the social aims, however, at what are the implications of receiving income from working with Asda Walmart?

The worry is that the notion of social enterprise will be ‘watered down’ once multinational corporations begin to use them as a form of corporate social responsibility. Asda, part of the Walmart Corporation does not have a positive, socially aware image, particularly in relation to the working conditions of their employees (examples here and here). If people are making an educated decision to support social enterprise in their consumer behaviour there is a risk of reduced confidence in social enterprises as they begin to compromise to fit the mould of a large scale retail supplier. This has implications for the social enterprise sector as a whole as the balance between social and enterprise is seen to tip in favour of enterprise as compromises are made that undermine wider social concerns. SIS pointed to these potential compromises as a challenge for social enterprises who might have to reconsider price points, sources of their materials and possibly outsource their production activities. In making such compromises the concern is that the ‘social’ in social enterprise becomes meaningless as enterprises are drawn into the less ethical practices of big business.

If Asda were sincere in their interest in social enterprise would they instead be considering what compromises they could make to work with social enterprises, rather than the other way around? Or would we rather that big business stays totally clear of social enterprises in order to retain some of the community based, cooperative roots of social enterprise in Scotland and baulk at the idea of Asda partnering with social enterprise?

Among the many questions that the Commonhealth research programme is attempting to address, we are trying to explore how different social enterprises manage the balance between ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ aims, and what this means for health outcomes.

Clementine Hill OConnor

I’ll drink to that

Drinking_a_beer_outside

In July this year Edinburgh opened its doors to its first social enterprise pub ‘The Southside Social’ who’s joints aims are to provide a nice wee place to drink, and also to provide sustainable employment for young people in Scotland. The profits of the pub will be donated to charity or re-invested into the programme. The pub will train its staff in the skills needed for a career in the hospitality industry, using a 19 week program including classroom based study and on the job work experience, almost like an apprenticeship. The outcome of which is the receipt of a certificate of work readiness, and qualifications in food hygiene and first aid.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pub, particularly one that serves tasty pale ale and has a decent crisp selection. Yet the sceptic in me wants to jump up and down waving a red flag, how can the promotion of alcohol use be conducive to the achievement of social and environmental benefit of the community? Yes, these young people are gaining relevant skills for the industry, but will they be trained how to deal with noise pollution complaints when students are drunkenly singing ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba at the 1am kick out time? And what if the pub is facilitating anti-social behaviour and negative health outcomes? The NHS has found that alcohol goes hand in hand with instances of violence across social groups, with alcohol related illness and injury putting the most pressure on accident and emergency departments across the UK. Most notably, alcohol is a depressant, with suicide and self-harm more prevalent in those who have an alcohol problem.

On the flip side, this site was previously a pub called ‘The Meadow Bar’, of which I used to frequent in my student days. If this pub had not been taken over by a social entrepreneur, it may have fell into the hands of a larger profit wielding leisure company, with no regard for the social and environmental benefits they could be delivering. Moreover, it could be said that there are ethical issues related to health that will arise in any situation where alcohol is sold to consumers, such as shops and restaurants. This got me thinking, we will always have pubs, good and bad, but is it better that they become social enterprises? Or should we be cautious of promoting social enterprises that encourage behaviours that have potentially negative public health outcomes, directly or indirectly? If such pubs are donating to charities and providing sustainable employment opportunities then perhaps these negative outcomes are balanced out as health and social need is indirectly met elsewhere.

The ‘not for profit’ pub is not a new concept, as community based organisations such as working men’s clubs have been in existence since the 19th century. Such places have served to sustain social and economic means in their day, but the very thought of a working men’s club conjures up images of overweight men drinking pints of heavy and chain smoking. Yet as many of these drinking institutions are dying a death due to de-industrialisation, it may be time to further re-modernise this concept and bring it into the 21st century in the form of social enterprise pubs. The UK Government is currently offering loans and grants to communities, particularly in rural areas, who wish to take over their local pub through the Plunkett Foundation. As this diversification into social and economic sustainability in hospitality service provision is now on the government agenda, it has to be questioned whether this can be represented in a responsible and health conscious way, some way somehow.

The social enterprise census 2015

census‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,’ said Alice,
‘because I’m not myself, you see.’
Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland, p.28.

The Social Enterprise Census 2015 came out this week and shows Scotland’s social enterprise sector is thriving. It reports that Scotland currently has over 5000 social enterprises, equivalent to one for every 1000 people. The signs are promising for future growth too, as on average over 225 new social enterprises have established themselves every year for the past 5 years. That is not to say the sector is young and vulnerable – the census finds the average age of a Scottish social enterprise is 17 years – though it does report that 42% were created in the last decade, and the authors propose that this burgeoning of the sector is the direct result of a supportive policy environment. While this is great news, it also highlights one of the difficulties with collecting statistics like these, specifically that they give you very little insight into the causations and explanations behind the figures. It may be supportive policy has driven social enterprise formation, but it could also be a result of austerity and people creating their own jobs.

This is where CommonHealth and similar research projects are really important. Our work can take these figures and help illuminate some of the stories and evidence behind them, particularly where that evidence contradicts what we thought we knew. The Census 2015 has discovered that social enterprise locations in Scotland mirror the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD – http://www.sns.gov.uk/Simd/Simd.aspx), with 5% located in the 5% of most deprived areas, 10% in the 10% of most deprived areas and so on. This is contrary to the common belief that social enterprises tend to cluster in areas of poverty and deprivation, and further emphasises how important this Census is to giving us a clear picture of social enterprise activity in Scotland.

The Census 2015 also found 60% of social enterprises are run by women, and that the gender split is equal for voluntary directors and committee members. Women are very well-represented amongst employees too – 70% of social enterprises report more than half of their employees are female. Further good news comes in the finding that 68% of social enterprises are paying the national living wage of £7.85 per hour, a finding which puts the private sector to shame.

The Census has successfully managed the difficult job of trying to capture the complexity and diversity of the social enterprise sector, particularly given that 36% of social enterprises do not describe themselves as such. I came across this in my own research recently. I interviewed a social entrepreneur whose reaction to discovering she ran a social enterprise reminded me of the Alice in Wonderland quote at the start of this blog. She believed that local and traditional craft-making skills were lost once her generation passed so she decided (at almost 70 years old) to set-up an initiative training local folk in these traditional skills from within a non-profit craft shop. She was paying the shop’s rent out of her pension – all profits were ploughed back into materials for teaching and the shop’s upkeep – until one day someone from a nearby business suggested to her that she was a social enterprise. She told me when I interviewed her that her little craft shop and training efforts weren’t as important as a social enterprise sounded, so she didn’t think it could be a social enterprise. Fortunately her friend from the nearby business persisted, and she has begun applying for funding to keep the shop going and keep her pension.

Behind the Social Enterprise Census 2015 are over 5000 stories, some small and local stories like the one above, others much larger and more complicated. As we progress through the CommonHealth Project I hope to have the privilege of becoming part of a handful of these stories but I will be very careful, as Danielle reminded us in her recent blog, to Take only notes and leave only memories.