Back to the future in Community Business!

Reading a recent Guardian article on the work of Vidhya Alakeson and Power to Change got me thinking about community business in the twenty-first century and the dimensions of continuity and change in the history of community business. For me there are some interesting parallels between the community business movement that began in the west of Scotland in the 1970s and the community businesses being supported by Power to Change in England today.

We could all use a DeLorean sometimes!

I’ve written before about my research on the history of social enterprise in Scotland and the importance of studying the emergence of the community business movement in the 1970s as part of this work. In Scotland, the use of the term community business was superseded by the social enterprise in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Therefore I’ve been especially interested in tracing the histories of the organisations that were established as part of the community business movement in the 1970s and continue trading today; examining to what extent their practice has been affected by changes in the sector.

Most of the people participating in making oral history recordings for the CommonHealth project remain committed to the co-operative values of the community business movement. Some organisations have changed their operating structure to survive, where for others this was out of the question, but a strong commitment to their the core mission was a defining feature of their work.

For me this suggests an important thread of continuity, which is why I was so struck by the report on community business in England today…

A middle class pursuit?

Vidhya Alakeson’s description of communities coming together to say ‘we can do something about this’ echoes the words of John Pearce in the late 1970s when he described people coming together to say ‘what can we do?’. As part of her work Alakeson is keen to challenge the idea that community business is something that happens in idyllic, leafy, rural, communities where retired and affluent professionals have the time and expertise to take over the running of the local pub, shop or other services.

The story of the Scottish experience of community business, certainly challenges this representation; often established in estates labelled ‘multiply deprived’, and aiming recruiting people who had been unemployed for many years due to the economic crisis of the 1970s and dramatic changes in the infrastructure of the Scottish economy. The testimony of Susan McGinlay, who started a cleaning company with 3 other women as part of Possil Community Business in the 1980s and went on to become the commercial manager of the organisation, speaks to the importance of perceptions and the role of community business in challenging them:

‘It was such a proud moment when you look back and you think my god all the work that we have created in this area. It rejuvenated quite a lot of people, it really did. It was a turning point for many of them, who started to see what they could do and what they were worth, rather than being told oh you come from Possil or Milton and you are scum and you are this and you are that. The commitment was amazing.’

McGinlay also talked through the valuable support her and her friends had received from Strathclyde Community Business over the years, a key issue if community businesses are to flourish outside affluent areas.

Reflecting on the history of community business, social need and the desire of people to come together to bring about change are constant, but the ability to put structures in place that support that need vary according to the governance of funding and policy.

Historical research also reveals numerous inspiring examples from the past that show other futures are possible.


Gillian Murray