Our Chief Executive, Lindsey Hall, and Head of Enterprise & Regeneration, Ed Whitelaw, spoke to Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics commentator for the Guardian about Plymouth, Social Enterprise, and how we’re doing better business.
Read the full article here, or check out extracts of the piece below. Lindsey and Ed also feature on The Alternatives Podcast, where they discuss game-changing economic models and how Plymouth became the UK’s first Social Enterprise City.
RIO on the regeneration of Devonport Guildhall:
“The conversation began, ‘Do you think it needs to be a community centre, a business centre or an arts centre?’” recalls RIO chief executive Lyndsey Hall. “By the end, it was, ‘We don’t care what you do – just take it away.’” With a £1.75m grant, Hall did just that. Today, it’s not just a centre for community or business or arts: it’s all three – and more. “No one’s going to get rich out of running a building like this,” says Hall’s colleague Ed Whitelaw. “Why would any private company want to take it on?”
But Hall and Whitelaw don’t run a standard business. Theirs is a social enterprise, a company that uses its profits and assets for public good. RIO derives an income from the Guildhall, but it doesn’t sweat the building for every last penny.
To wander around the Guildhall is to see that ethos in action: the main hall with its stained-glass windows has just been vacated by a team of cheerleaders, and is let out for free to community groups. Other social enterprises rent office space and use the basement jail cells as meeting rooms. In the corner is a cafe and bakery.
On why social enterprise was the right model for RIO:
When the council met RIO in the late 2000s, social enterprises were still a novelty. Hall had been inspired by a visit to Toronto and seeing everything from supermarket chains to the giant Harbourfront arts centre operating as community businesses. But in the UK, social enterprises, or community interest companies, were only legally recognised in 2005. A product of fag-end Blairism, they came bearing that ideology’s virtues and vices: a desire to tackle age-old social problems in new ways and a bewildered wonderment at the magic that could somehow be worked by entrepreneurs. That haze hangs over the 2005 act, which establishes a watchdog for the new businesses – but says its “power should be exercised only to the extent necessary to maintain confidence in community interest companies”. As for how exactly communities were to be served by these companies – well, that was usually left for the companies themselves to define. Whether returning £10m or 10p to society – that’s up to them. “Some social enterprises we go, ‘brilliant, fabulous’,” says Rio’s Hall. “Other things named as social enterprises we go, ‘ugh’.”
On Plymouth, the UK’s first Social Enterprise City:
Plymouth now has more than 150 social enterprises employing over 7,000 workers earning a combined income of over £500m. For a city of 250,000 people, which only adopted social enterprise five years ago, that’s remarkable growth. Even more surprising is the politics. Political control over Plymouth council changes only slightly less frequently than the tide, yet the Tory administration that took over in 2016 has also encouraged and funded social enterprise. If, as looks likely, Labour returns to power next month, it is committed to doubling the city’s co-operative economy by 2025. With neither side threatening to pull the plug, national charities such as Esmee Fairbairn and Power To Change have the security they need to plough millions into the city’s sector.
On doing better business:
I’m reminded of a remark from RIO’s Hall. “There was that moment on television when you’d have Alan Sugar doing The Apprentice and getting people to behave as badly as possible. Then an hour afterwards, it’d be The Secret Millionaire – with all these tycoons making people cry by giving them money out of the goodness of their hearts. “And that’s – that’s just wrong!” Her head crashes into her palms. “Why are we creating a culture where it’s OK to make money behaving as badly as possible in order for people to give it away? That’s the culture we’ve got to change. I don’t care whether it’s called social enterprise, or anything else.”