Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Chelsea effect

There should always be moments where people can line up their work for others to see it displayed at its best. For the Coalition Government that could be the Queen’s speech today, for the gardening elite it is Chelsea.

To give you an idea of how dotty I am, I’ll tell you something I haven’t told anyone before. Every year I get ready for Chelsea. I know I’m not going to get judged, and really I do it so when I go to the festival, usually on the Thursday evening, I can hold my head up. But secretly I also like to make sure, that if for some reason the judges went into overdrive and needed more to do, I’d be ready.

Watering at the allotment this morning, watching the mist rise and the foxes trot home, I was content. Everything was as it should be. My purple alliums, planted to complement the silver grey leaves of the broad beans, were at perfection. The white iris in my little pond had bloomed on que as my runners had finally broken ground to begin their twisted journey skywards. All about me was food for the soul as well as the plate, and all rather lovely.

It struck me how complex a proposition gardening is. Each plant needs its own special environment. To give you their all they need the right soil, optimum light and water and to be protected from pests. People present even more complex propositions and a Government that wants to address social ills and inspire industry needs to know that. My hope is that the cuts we saw yesterday form the start of judicial pruning and are not early experiments for a scorched earth approach. Time will tell, but I am concerned.

I do not know what data was used to conclude that the Future Jobs Fund had, as we were told yesterday, failed. But SEL’s experience could not have been a better one. It was a well administered fund despite being rolled out at speed and through it we were getting young people firstly into good temporary jobs and latterly into permanent ones. Talking to colleagues this seems to be the case for most of us working at the social enterprise end of the initiative, so I prey if this is to go, what comes next is an even better offer for the UK’s unemployed young people.

The Regional Development Agencies are trickier. Unless you have been asleep for the last eleven years you will know how unpopular they have been, that being said most of the fragile infrastructure of our still infant social enterprise movement has come through the RDA’s. If the East of England and the SouthEast, are to go, what will become of my friends at Social Enterprise East of England and SE2? Our own RDA announced the week before the election that our contract with them was, absolutely not going to be renewed, so potentially that is three of the UK’s leading agencies, hitherto working 24/7 to encourage the kind of social enterprise solutions we hear daily are needed for the aftermath of cuts, are themselves to be cut.

As a gardener this doesn’t make sense. If you want something to grow you do have to prune it, but not at the cost of its infrastructure. Without a framework, most things collapse.

I know we have to have cuts, but investment in the growth that you hope will follow the cuts is an essential part of the equation. If you want communities to take a more engaged approach to formerly Government led solutions, then supporting agencies that have been doing that would be an obvious one. SEL was the first social enterprise support agency in the UK, possibly the world. In our venerable 12 years we have produced some of the world’s foremost work in the field and we have the largest network of members of any single agency. It’s just a thought, but those credentials might come in handy, if the assertion that communities can deliver entrepreneurial solutions is not to be judged by posterity as rhetoric. I know communities can do that, it’s a fact. But they can’t do it by themselves, at least not at the start. That is why you need experts, motivated advocates who can bring to each challenge the lessons learnt from the last one.

Growing things takes planning, preparation and above all patience no matter if it’s folk or fodder you want to see at its best. I know there is far more cutting to come, but my hope it is our social enterprises that fill the space, something that can happen, but not without fertilizer.

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