Supporting communities in need: Social Business Wales Conference

Organisers promise ‘inspiration, ideas and practical skills which will help them enter new markets, develop new products and services or adopt new structures’

How do you get jobs and contracts into some of society’s poorest communities? This will be one of the issues discussed at the Social Business Wales (SBW) Conference on 27 September, where social businesses (co-operatives, mutuals, social enterprises and employee-owned businesses) will gather to share experiences, expertise and ideas around the issue.

Held annually for the social enterprise and co-operative sector in Wales, SBW 2018 is a free event funded by the Welsh government and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), and will be held at City Hall, Cardiff. It is delivered by the Wales Co-operative Centre, the national body for co-operatives and social businesses, which also manages projects which tackle poverty and promote inclusion through co-operative working.

Rhian Edwards is project manager for Social Business Wales at the Wales Co-operative Centre, and believes the social business sector in Wales is “redefining how business gets done”. In Wales, social businesses employ over 40,000 people, offer volunteering opportunities to approximately 50,000 and contribute an estimated £2.37bn to the national economy.

“This year’s Social Business Wales Conference is specifically intended to provide social businesses in Wales with inspiration, ideas and practical skills which will help them enter new markets, develop new products and services or adopt new structures,” she says, “all of which will enable them to grow and be more sustainable.

“We will be encouraging all our delegates attending, whether they are from a social enterprise, charity, co-operative or mutual, to share best practice; encourage innovation; and learn from and build partnerships with the private, public and not-for-profit sector.”

In 2017, the Wales Co-operative Centre conducted research to map social businesses in Wales, surveying almost half the organisations operating in the sector. It found that social businesses are often located in areas of deprivation – with 72% describing their main social or environmental objectives as seeking to improve a particular community. Almost half were seeking to improve health and wellbeing.

The report also noted that the typical size of a social business (in turnover) has increased, but that lack of – or poor access to – funding was the most commonly identified constraint on business growth. Over half of respondents identified additional barriers, particularly insufficient staffing/volunteers, the impact of Brexit, and public sector austerity measures.

Guy Singh-Watson from Riverford Organic Farmers is one of the speakers

“Collectively, therefore, there is clear evidence of a growing, increasingly confident and entrepreneurial social business sector that is built upon strengthening foundations,” said the report.

“The increase in turnover, jobs and volunteer opportunities supported by the sector will have an impact on local economies, community cohesion, and individual people’s potential to develop themselves through paid employment, work experience, and training. The social benefits of these businesses have tangible effects which are having a positive impact on communities throughout Wales.”

The SBW Conference 2018 will build on these findings, with talks, practical workshops and a celebration of business growth. The speakers will come from a range of backgrounds, to provide different perspectives on the role social businesses can play in the future growth of the Welsh economy – particularly post-Brexit.

One of the keynote speakers will be Dai Powell, CEO of HCT Group. He has been with the organisation since 1993, leading the company as it developed from a community transport charity in Hackney, London, into a social enterprise of national scale, creating over 1,500 jobs and servicing over 30 million passenger trips annually across England and the Channel Islands.

Dai Powell

“In 1993, with traditional grants under threat, we came to the realisation that the best way to become a sustainable social enterprise was to become an effective enterprise,” says HCT Group. “We began to compete for commercial contracts in the marketplace to ensure we could continue to provide community transport.”

This approach has seen HCT Group grow from a handful of volunteers and a couple of minibuses with a turnover of £202,000 in 1993, to a large- scale social enterprise with 1,500 employees, depots spread across London, Yorkshire, the south west, the north west, Derbyshire and the Channel Islands, a fleet of 730 vehicles and a 2017/18 turnover of £62.9m.

Its commercial track record spans a wide range of services too – from London red buses and park and ride to social services and school transport.

Ken Skates

HCT says it does this not to create shareholder value, but to create community value. This is done in three ways: profits from commercial contracts are reinvested back into further transport services or projects in the communities it serves; training services are delivered for people who are long term unemployed that specifically focus on employment and skills; and employment opportunities are created for people in deprived communities as the organisation “actively seeks new ways to make our communities better places to live and work through the way we operate”.

Joining Dai Powell are Ken Skates (the economy secretary for Wales) and Guy Singh-Watson (the founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, which recently switched to employee ownership), while the event will be hosted by Sarah Dickins, BBC Cymru Wales economic correspondent.

Additional workshops will cover topics from risk management and developing technology for growth, to engaging the workforce of the future, measuring social impact and using Welsh language to generate commercial value.

Sarah Dickins

Businesses attending the event will also be able to connect with a range of exhibitors from the public, private and social enterprise sector in Wales. The exhibitors will feature all the finalists from the Social Business Wales Awards 2018.

The Social Business Wales Awards and Conference take place at Cardiff City Hall. Awards: Wednesday 26 September, 6.30pm-10.30pm. Conference: Thursday 27 September, 9:30am-4.30pm. For more information, and to book your free conference place, visit: