Friday, 12 September 2014

You can’t eat the view - Conference on social enterprise

Earlier today I was a speaker at a Conference about social enterprise held at Truro College. It was entitled: “You can’t eat the view.”

My speech was as follows:

I strongly support genuine social enterprises – which are driven by social objectives instead of the need to make profits for share-holders.

I think it is a very positive thing that such organisations often fills a need in service provision for certain communities of interest or local areas, while seeking to improve society and to drive community cohesion.

Whether charities, community groups, micro-businesses, co-operatives or credit unions, this additionality really should be celebrated and celebrated loudly, as should those initiatives which are truly innovative and provide something new and exciting.

And this is becoming ever more important, as councils across the UK retreat and become more remote, doing less and less.

But that is not to say I have always been in agreement with what each and every social enterprise does.

For example, some years ago, I did not hesitate to condemn the decision of Eden to associate itself with a couple of, what I termed, inappropriate and unsustainable developments.

And I am also extremely cynical – 15 years as a local councillor has seen to that – about how language can be misused or even corrupted.

You would baulk at how I have seen terms like “community benefit” or “green” interpreted – so I think all genuine social enterprises should carefully guard the very concept of “not-for-profit” and the definition of what it means to be a social entrepeneur.

But – back to being positive – social enterprise is very real and important to me.

I am very proud to be the Chairman of a small social enterprise in the heart of the China Clay Area, known as ClayTAWC – or in full – the Clay Country Training and Work Centre.

For those of you that do not know ClayTAWC, it is a community hub, based in a converted former primary school in St Dennis.

It is well-used by the local community – everything from craft and art groups, to the local Old Cornwall Society, to a very active anti-incinerator group.

We have a small board of volunteers, two members of staff, and the centre provides a base for a number of organisations, and individuals, including the Parish Council, the Police Community Support Officer and a team from the Cornwall Rural Community Council, which itself offers support to community groups and charities.

Other tenants include ‘Link into Learning’ which provides numerous courses for people in the locality, and ReachOut – a social enterprise – which offers youth support programmes for local teenagers not in education, employment or training.

Over the last few years, I have also had the privilege to serve as Chairman of one of Cornwall’s three Local Action Groups – which have allocated LEADER grant funding to a wide range of community groups and businesses, many of which were social enterprises.

However, much of what I wish to say today is about the context within which we find ourselves.

I mean, of course, the disastrous austerity measures of the present Coalition Government which are undermining so many parts of the public sector in Cornwall and elsewhere across the UK.

I do understand that many see the present situation as an “opportunity” for social enterprises.

Many have worked in partnership in Cornwall Council for years, and to quote a CRCC report from 2008: “We face particular challenges in our rural economy and the decline in vital services in areas such as health, social care, retail and transport. Social enterprise however presents us with opportunities to address some of these issues …”

It almost goes without saying that many people associated with social enterprises feel they have something of a responsibility to “step up” where councils and others are retreating from service provision due to the cuts.

I really fear for the destruction of the public sector that I hold dear, through wave after wave of privatisations and out-sourcing arrangements.

I was discussing this with a colleague yesterday. The first phase he used was “managed retreat” – we moved onto this “not being managed very well” and finished with a single word “meltdown.”

My perspective on this context is, very much, informed by my role as a local councillor and what I am experiencing at first hand at County Hall and across the communities of Cornwall.

Coalition cuts to local government are truly disproportionate – and they are undermining the ability of councils to provide those public services that individuals, families and communities have a right to expect.

I feel that this present Government is using the financial and economic crisis – caused by bankers, an over-heating housing market, irresponsible lending and the failure of the Westminster class to regulate the financial sector – as an excuse to wield an ideological axe to turn a crisis caused by the private sector into a crisis for the whole of the public sector.

The Coalition Government is pushing policy after policy that is impacting most negatively on the less-well-off, those in need of housing, and those struggling on below a living wage.

I certainly take the view that central government with its Cabinet of millionaires has a skewed understanding of what is appropriate for the ordinary people of the United Kingdom and this is especially so for Cornwall.

For that reason, I was very pleased that the title of this conference was: “You can’t eat the view.”

It is a well-used phrase, and it evokes so clearly how people looking into Cornwall – for example, from the Palace of Westminster – can be so ignorant of our economic, financial and social problems. 

I still remember the first time I heard the expression. The speaker was Julyan Drew – who was leader of Mebyon Kernow in the mid-1980s. Rev Drew – he is now a Methodist Minister in West Cornwall – is a profound man and he always had a good line in quotes.

I recently rediscovered across a book that I had purchased many years ago - “Turn left at Land’s End

It’s a kind of travel book, where the author visited various left-wing activists across Cornwall, Julyan was again quoted. This quote dated to 1987 – a time of significant economic problems in Cornwall – and he said: “If you have been fed shit all your life, you like the taste of it eventually.”

Well, he is correct, and Cornwall deserves better. A fair society, with decent public services, where we protect the vulnerable and the needy, and where can all enjoy the views around us.

But going back to central government’s skewed understanding of what is appropriate for Cornwall. I don’t want to upset anyone but I am sure that we have all seen the recent pictures of David Cameron holidaying in North Cornwall.

I honestly believe that he, and his millionaire ministers take their perspective from an occasional holiday – presumably near Rock because I have never seen him holidaying in Clay Country – and glossy supplements in UK newspapers, rather than any documentation detailing the poverty and social problems faced by local people.

I am sure that many of you will also have seen an article in the Sunday Times last year – it was just one of many similar articles – and it claimed that Cornwall was a “playground for the super-rich.”

It had a lot to say is about celebrities, helipads, polo on the beach – anyone hear got a helipad … anyone ever played polo on the beach – and hotel rooms with “the scent of fig electronically pumped into the air.”

Individuals featured within the piece included a businessman who owned “loads of boats … including a 43ft motorboat with every gadget going,” his wife who has “racked up three speeding fines roaring around the county in her Range Rover,” and the owner of a second home – complete with a “cinema room and a heated pool” – who felt that “walking down the beach can sometimes feel like Chelsea-on-Sea.”

They even renamed Cornwall as the Champagne Coast, and added that, “with the drive down from London taking just three hours in a Porsche, Cornwall is becoming something of a millionaire’s paradise.”

I don’t know about you, but many people in the area that I represent would struggle to pay for the joke car sticker which states “My other car is a Porsche.”

I do not recognise this almost mythical “lifestyle Cornwall.” That is not my Cornwall.

I see much more of what my good friend Bernard Deacon described as “life-struggle Cornwall,” in which local people struggle to make ends meet and access affordable housing in a low-wage area, that has an economic performance which is only two-thirds of the UK average.

But instead of addressing life-struggle Cornwall, the Coalition Government has imposed savage welfare cuts, and it has introduced the “bedroom tax” – described by one of its own MPs as “victimising the most marginalised” in society and “Dickensian in its social divisiveness.”

It has localised council tax benefit – but not before it shaved off £5 million into its own coffers leaving people, previously considered too poor to pay council tax, having to find £300 - £400 a year. Conversely, it has given tax cuts to millionaires, while poverty around them has exploded and the pressure on food banks has grown and grown.

And those politicians – who are now in Government – but campaigned for fair funding for Cornwall and other rural areas – prior to the last General Election – have failed to deliver.

And they admit it: “Under the local government financial settlement for 2014/15, urban authorities will receive 50 per cent more funding per head than their country cousins, despite the fact residents in rural authorities … pay 15 per cent more council tax and many public services are more expensive to deliver in sparsely populated rural areas.” – [Neil Parish MP]

The unitary authority presently estimates that each year Cornwall misses out on £48 million a year.

The consequence of all this – is the announcement, last week, at how Cornwall Council will slash a total of £196 million from its budget over the next four years – as a direct consequence of the cuts.

You can do the maths – we miss out on £48 million a year – and are faced with cuts of four-times that over a four-year period. It is unjust and simply nonsensical.

What is more, these devastating cuts come on top of cuts of £170 million that have already been implemented.  

And these figures simply total the host of single cuts – the figures which reflect the year-on-year, cumulative drop in expenditure, is simply mind boggling.

The list of new cuts is extremely long and impacts on each and every council department. The privatisation of some services has been suggested, along with the “devolution” of certain responsibilities to town and parish councils or other voluntary groups.

Likewise, the Council’s new strategy contains statements about how it intends to refashion its approach to service provision. These are:

To strengthen “the resilience of the voluntary and community sector by accelerating the growth of Council services commissioned to the sector to deliver.”

To develop “an equitable relationship with town and parish councils and voluntary and community groups, who can play a vital role in delivering local services.”

I hope it is clear to you that I am a passionate advocate of a society that believes in social justice and values its public sector.

I despair at the shift to perpetual privatisation, more and more out-sourcing, and the massive gap opening up between what the Council should be doing for our communities and what it can now afford to do, which is so much less.

Can social enterprises can help to combat this shift in British society? Maybe! In the short term – I hope so!

But part of this modern reality is that some of the cuts are also falling on social enterprises. In my own experience of this field, I have seen some social enterprises struggle and one close down, putting community projects at risk – but which, for the record, were still delivered by other organisations.

Even the cuts from Cornwall Council include the removal of grants from those local charities and voluntary groups that they also think will be delivering services.

Going back to the social enterprise which I chair – ClayTAWC – it did not, until this year, pay business rates, because what we did was appreciated for its social value.

We have recently even taken on responsibility for a community library from Cornwall Council, that would otherwise have disappeared. We did what was right, but our reward was a bill for £2,000.

We still have a 75% discount, but there is now a new proposal to remove discretionary rate relief, in its entirety, for charities and not-for-profit organisations in 2017.

That equates to an annual bill of £8,000 for the modest social enterprise that is ClayTAWC.

So to conclude, what would I like to see?

Well, I want to see genuine social enterprises thriving, doing good work and delivering for local communities and local residents, but alongside a strong, well-funded and respected public sector.

But to achieve this, all of us – councillors, social entrepreneurs, educationalists, charity workers and more – we need to put pressure on the Westminster parties and the Coalition to reverse its assault on the public sector which, over the next few years, will hurt us all and undermine the values that we hold.

So when Cameron, Clegg and Miliband get back from telling the Scots what not to do, we must ratchet up the pressure on the austerity agenda emanating from Westminster.

My question to you all is – are you up for it?


Charlotte Evans said...

Great article Dick, on 'eating the view' - indeed it needs to be a living landscape, not merely a picturesque ideal that politicians holiday in without actually understanding in the slightest.

Clive's Blog said...

As always, Dick Cole is well informed and the message is well delivered