Covid-19 has resulted, on the whole, in a marked co-operation between contracting authorities and their suppliers as everybody focuses on maintaining delivery as far as possible.
The mood from colleagues in the community sector was sombre. Afzal Hussain, Chief Officer of Witton Lodge Community Association, reported that his organisation has seen footfall into their local centre rise from 7,000 in the previous year to 12,000 in the year just finished. Inequality, like demand, is set to rise, and organisations like WLCA working in less prosperous neighbourhoods will continue to be on the front line. Neighbourhood based organisations will need to diversify income streams as public funds are squeezed further. There were some crumbs of comfort; the strengthening of the community right to bid was welcomed, and it appears to be a good time to aspire to run a community pub.
For the social enterprise sector, Sarah Crawley of the Initiative for Social Entrepreneurs saw opportunities to deliver more public services. There is an explicit commitment in the manifesto to innovation in delivery which is welcome. However there were some raised eyebrows that the Work Programme is being held up as a success story of how to involve the third sector in service delivery. We should be ready for payment by results to be rolled out across more contracts, and greater use of social investment tools like Social Impact Bonds.
There is also some welcome mention of the beleaguered library service, with a commitment to helping more libraries “go digital” around e-books and community wifi.
The co-operators in the room noted with some concern the absence of any reference whatsoever to co-operatives, or co-operation, in the manifesto (perhaps a result of the travails at the Co-operative Group over the last 18 months). There is a one line mention of public service mutuals, and the possibility of a “right to mutualise”. Our good friend Cliff Mills pointed out that mutuality is not something you can impose on a workforce; it needs to be the decision of those involved.
All of us noticed the return of the Big Society, with its emphasis now on “Over to You”. However with the burden of continuing austerity impacting most on those least able to bear it, this means one thing for all in social business: there is even more for us to do now. And that, perhaps, summarises the other big theme of our conversation.
We should be realistic about what’s coming in the next 5 years. There will be challenging times ahead, especially for the poorest in our communities and neighbourhoods. But there was also a strong, shared sense that we won’t – we can’t – wait for government to come and make things better. The social business sector will continue to do what it does best – we will roll up our sleeves, pitch in where we see a need, and do what we can to use trade to create social impact. And if ministers want to help it’ll be a bonus.
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