Social Business: safeguarding the future of Wales?

‘We know we can create jobs. We have immense power within this movement to make a difference’

Wales is home to 2,022 social businesses, which together employ 55,000 people and are worth £3.18bn. These people-centred businesses are going to be integral to the future of Wales, delegates were told at the 2019 Social Business Wales conference, held in Llandudno on 25 September. 

“The UK is entering its most challenging period in decades,” said Jennifer Jones, BBC presenter and host of the event. “There are new pressures on businesses and communities in Wales. But the social business sector is one of the most resilient.”

Social Businesses Wales (SBW) is a project providing intensive one-to-one support to social businesses which are looking to expand or create jobs. It is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Welsh government and is being delivered by the Wales Co-operative Centre.

Speaking at the conference, SBW enterprise director, Glenn Bowen, said social businesses can have the most impact in communities left behind by post-industrialisation, austerity and poverty.

“The history books of the future are being written on a daily basis,” he said. “None of us will know where this mad rollercoaster of Brexit will end … But people living in post-industrial communities where well-paid jobs were close to home now have to commute further, leaving economically inactive, vulnerable people alone and isolated, especially in rural areas. We can’t rely on the jobs we used to rely on. These communities are struggling for a future.”

Social businesses have a critical role to play here, he said, in creating services and well-paid jobs within communities. 

Mr Bowen added: “Every community needs an economic anchor to exist. For some that will be a hospital or a university. For others it will be a private firm established for generations – although wouldn’t it be great if more of these firms ended up in the hands of employees? But for many areas there are no economic anchor institutions. That’s where the social business sector comes in. We know we can create jobs. We have immense power within this movement to make a difference.”

But, he said, it’s not just about jobs, it’s about people: “Social businesses are people businesses. We work with people in communities, we help them highlight the problems they face and help them find their own solutions.” 

And he thinks the future is exciting. “The policy agenda is moving into our space for the first time. The traditional economic model is looking to do things differently and we can do that. As a movement we are coming together. And we have new services: The Social Business Wales New Start initiative is a £3m project supported by the EU that is aiming to create 200 businesses in Wales over the next three years; and the Wales Co-operative Centre and Creating Enterprise are launching the Social Enterprise Academy in Wales, which will provide innovative learning and development programmes for leaders of companies, social enterprises and public bodies.”

But for all of this to make a difference the dots need joining up. In a video address, Lee Waters, deputy minister for economy and transport, stressed the need for a “candid conversation about what we need to do next”.

“We are entering extremely difficult times … the message of mutual help, solidarity and working with communities to stop money leaking out will be crucial,” he said. “We need to focus on changing the way these patterns of the economy work and mainstream the principles of local wealth building. And we absolutely must urgently address the way our economy works. Because it’s not working now.”

One way this is being addressed is through the development of a new social business roadmap.

“We haven’t had a strategy for our sector for 10 years,” said Derek Walker, chief executive of the Wales Co-operative Centre. “It is clear that we need one. We won’t realise the potential of the sector if we don’t put in place a vision for its future.”

He acknowledged there had been a lack of co-ordination among the agencies that support social businesses in Wales and highlighted how feedback from the strategy consultation stressed the need for better collaboration. 

“Now we’re taking charge of our own future,” he told delegates. “We’re responsible for making that happen. This is our journey.”

Delegates also heard from ultra marathon runner Lowri Morgan and author Sam Conniff Allende, who looked at how to approach different challenges, and took part in a series of masterclasses that offered inspiration, ideas and practical skills.

“I want to challenge the perception that it’s only awesome people who do awesome things,” said Lowri Morgan. “It’s actually the ordinary folk that do the most remarkable of things.” She is one of six people to have completed the Amazon Ultra Marathon and has also finished the 350-mile 6633 Ultra in the Arctic.

Lowri Morgan addressing the conference (Photo: Keith Freeburn)

“Achievements like this are in part about not giving up, she said, but it’s also about addressing the fear that we won’t achieve our goals. “I am somebody who doesn’t have that much confidence or the biggest belief in themselves, but I don’t want to be rubbish at life and fail at making the most of the opportunities I have.” 

Sam Conniff Allende, author of Be More Pirate, has the firm belief that the biggest mistake we can make is to believe the way things are is the way things have to be. “The 20th century has no shortage of rules that need to be broken,” he said. “It’s time to rewrite some of these rules.”

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He believes pirates are some of the original pioneers, through their sophisticated ways of organising equally and democratically, with their own written code of governance. “There’s even a genealogical link between co-operatives and the pirates,” he said. “There are seven co-op principles; six of them appear in the pirate code.”

Jessica Morgan (aka Jessica Draws) spoke about the power of telling stories and being authentic in all interactions. “Telling stories matters,” she said. “Starting conversations about things that matter to you – and showcasing your process as well as the end product – will help to build genuine relationships between people. There is a big difference between being professional and being corporate; being your actual self will help your passion come through.” 

Marcus Fair from Eternal Media spoke about his journey from the depths of addiction to founding an award-winning film company which makes “Hollywood-quality productions on a Holyhead budget.” The business now employs other former addicts and operates out of a nuclear bunker in Wrexham. “It keeps me clean every single day and has done for five years. I now see it doing the same for others – not just addicts, but hundreds of people – working through their own myriad of issues […] We are saving lives on a daily basis.” 

Kevin Morgan of NatWest Cymru presents the Social Enterprise of the Year to Aura Leisure (Photo: Eye Imagery)

The conference also celebrated the winners of the Social Business Wales Awards, presented the previous evening. Aura Leisure was named Welsh Social Enterprise of the Year, with other winners including Community Impact Initiative, Down to Earth, Fern Partnership, Awel Aman Tawe and Innovate Trust.

Wales is home to 2,022 social businesses, which together employ 55,000 people and are worth £3.18bn. These people-centred businesses are going to be integral to the future of Wales; this was the message of the 2019 Social Business Wales conference, held in Llandudno on 25 September.