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Innovation Explored: Community involvement in the local social economy  

April 4, 2024  
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New Local partnered with Power to Change to explore what a successful social economy could look like and what would be needed to help it thrive.

At its core is to ensure communities are empowered and community businesses have a real stake in their local economy. Supporting community businesses that are driven by social purpose, run by local people, and deliver goods and services in their neighbourhood can bring significant benefits to the economy, meet local needs, and bolster pride in an area. Given their focus, community businesses often flourish in areas of high deprivation – they understand and meet local need better than other organisations and build long-term relationships with others in their community.  

Supporting and growing this sector of activity can be challenging. Community businesses will often require different types of support to market-led businesses and will require all voices to be heard, community assets to be utilised, and relationships to be built. But this is where strong links to councils and combined authorities can really help. Councils can look to invest in this sector through procuring services, could explore the possibility of community asset transfer and community right-to-buy, and it can convene groups together to create new opportunities for investment and support. 

Supporting and growing this sector will look different in different places as the challenges will be varied too. With this in mind, the session heard a range of reflections from across the country and various sectors and identified two key challenges to bolstering activity: 

  1. Resource and skills – exploring how to ensure there are the right knowledge, skills, and lateral thinking across multiple teams within a council to foster a social economy; and 
  1. Education and participation – exploring how councils can share more information about community businesses and get residents to participate more fully in the social economy. 

Here are eight practical insights shared in the session: 

  1. Political buy-in – getting political support for growing the social economy is vital as it will ensure the endeavour is common across different teams and can be a consistent focus. One way to do this is to make the case for the sector at a local level to ensure its relevant to a range of other priorities. Another way is to explore what the data shows and make the case that the current methods of investment haven’t changed issues of deprivation and so exploring the social economy could help alleviate issues.  
  1. Education – without people understanding what the social economy is, what its’ businesses focus on, and what it can achieve, those less familiar to the sector won’t recognise its benefits. Clearly setting out what separates businesses in this category from other businesses will help others join dots across activities and goals. 
  1. Importance of measurement and impact – having useful case studies to be able to present, or evaluations of activities and outcomes could help make the case. Stories and intelligence are key tools to help bring this sector to life – explore their context, their roles, their vision, their outcomes. 
  1. Build on momentum and what’s already happening – supporting and growing the sector may well be difficult to begin with so avoid trying to influence everyone and every team. Instead, go where there is already momentum or opportunity for growth – another team’s goals or objectives that you feel social businesses could help, or a focus on a particular neighbourhood that is important to the council and look for stories, insight, and opportunities. Use these things to build momentum and make the case for the sector. 
  1. Humility in enabling – the council has an important role as an enabler and convener of organisations as well as a financial supporter and asset provider. The tools in a council’s toolbox can help build the sector but it has to be done sensitively without trying to overwhelm or constrain social businesses. Trust and engagement are key here – understand what is already happening, explore with communities the challenges they face, support with overcoming barriers. 
  1. Relationships are key – as the social economy is so diverse, reflecting the variation in needs of communities, building strong relationships is key. Building trust takes time but it will pay dividends – you will better understand the needs of their communities and will be better placed to spot opportunities to support social businesses in a variety of ways. In areas where growing the social economy is in its infancy, much of the early exploration and testing will only be built on trust and human relationships – reach out and make sure they are strong and sincere. 
  1. Technical skills – there will be the need for technical skills as social businesses are supported. Exploring the skills required for community asset transfer, financial arrangements, procurement changes, or community right-to-buy – to name a few – will be needed to help grow the sector as it matures. Reflect where these skills are within the council. 
  1. Strategy and frameworks – connecting different organisational goals and priorities and ensuring social businesses are at the heart of that can be a helpful way to land the key messages about the sector to a broader council audience. Connecting council strategies to things such as ‘Doughnut Economics’, the ‘circular economy’ and ‘inclusive growth’ can prove a useful way to talk about the social economy. The breadth of the social economy is a strength in that it can be a useful tool to help achieve wider goals that are often discussed in the abstract. Come armed with examples and ideas which will help other teams achieve their goals by growing the social economy. 

The Innovation Series

Innovation Exchanges give participants from our member councils a space to step away from day-to-day activities and engage with peers from across the country. Each session addresses a big challenge or opportunity facing councils and their communities. Sessions are peer-led and practically-focused, so participants come away insights, ideas and learning to share with their teams.

Innovation Explored series feature a write-up of the core points from the Innovation Exchange, alongside practical learning from councils and other experts pioneering new approaches to tackling today’s biggest challenges. Each Innovation Explored also shares a roundup of relevant resources from the sector and beyond.

April 4, 2024
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