Friday, 20 November 2009

Straight talking

I thought I’d take the time spent in the hairdresser’s chair having my hair straightened (first time ever – hope it doesn’t fall out!) to update you on Social Enterprise Day.

No 10 was fun, bumped into lots of old friends including SEL pin ups Micheal Pyner of the Shoreditch Trust and Campbell Robb, who is leaving the Office of The Third Sector in December to take over as CEO of Shelter. Good for Shelter, but our loss. Campbell has been a great champion of social enterprise and has been particularly effective in developing support for the movement to play a key role in England’s economic development strategy. Sounds boring but makes all the difference to our members, who are crying out for the information, guidance and support provided through things like CapacityBuilders and the Social Enterprise Knowledge Exchange, both of which Campbell has put in place. He will be missed.

At the reception the Prime Minister spoke warmly to the gathered social entrepreneurs, telling us how much he admires what we do. He said he applauded the fact that we are working to make people's lives better. It sounds cheesy but was really nice actually and I think he meant it. I managed to hook up Reed Paget of Belu Water and the amazing Lynn Berry of the massive volunteering organisation WRVS, who is on a mission to make her organisation more environmentally sustainable. WRVS makes and distributes more sandwiches than anyone else in the UK and they also sell a great deal of bottled water, so let’s hope Belu hits the mark. Wholfing a few delicious canapés courtesy of CafeSunlight, Peter Holbrook’s outstanding social enterprise, I headed off... The Guardian conference in Birmingham where I joined the round table delegate discussions. The questions centred on how we can deliver more public services and whether social enterprises can work with the private sector. I did an Anthea to Patrick Butler's (Head of Health, Society & Education at The Guardian), Brucie and we each read out individual table findings. One of the things that struck me was how positive people are on the proposition of working with the private sector, the general consensus being that as long as we negotiate effectively it is absolutely possible. I have been saying this for years and as a result SEL has had several highly successful commercial relationships with the private sector. I had always thought it was controversial and so was fascinated to see that in that auditorium at least, the attitude was very positive.

We then had speeches from Vince Cable of the Lib Dems and Barbara Follett, Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government. Vince was really interesting, he had clearly thought the issues through for himself and confessed to us all that until he recently met Margaret Elliott from Sunderland Home Care he didn’t really understand was social enterprise was. Having got to grips with it he feels it has a strong future, particularly in delivering local services. In print recently he un-packed the 'big government vs local government' debate, arguing we need local services delivered to national standards - I think he’s spot on. Barbara said ‘social enterprises express what people really feel’, I liked that.

In the q & a Vince threw my question straight back at me, asking what I think government needs to do to better support social enterprise. I said:

1. Government needs to be a better shopper - buying from organisations which deliver real positive social change

2. Existing capacity building support (which Vince had slightly upbraided in his speech) is vital and needs to be continued and developed.

Caught the train with Patrick and Mark Gould from The Guardian, Gemma Hampson of Social Enterprise Magazine and our Matt Jarratt, where we had a good debate over whether social enterprises really will end up running public services on a large scale. We agreed that they could do rather well if the planets align in our favour. Earlier I had chatted to Sophi Trachell, MD of Divine Chocolate and SEL’s co-Chair, who had been frustrated that The Guardian had chosen Social Enterprise Day to report on the collapse of Total Healthcare. I put this to Patrick who maintained that he had done it to put the debate about the future of public services into context: social enterprise can be a winner but it can lose too. Fair enough I think, when Woollies went down no one said that it marked the end of high street retailing.

We sat around some poor chap who looked like he was trying to work. When we got out at Euston I apologised for disturbing him and he said he had really enjoyed the conversation, gave me his card and said he would welcome a further chat about the social impact I mentioned…. everyone is interested in social enterprise, they just don’t know it yet!

As I finish typing I’m presented with the result of the hairdresser’s endeavours. They say it won’t look like this forever... I feel a gin coming on.

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