"Once a neighbourhood sees the potential of a meaningful community business forming in their midst, it has the potential to mobilise significant swathes of the population"
No one understands a community better than the people who live there. In some places, a significant minority are already coming together to solve problems for themselves. We at Power to Change support them to run businesses which help their whole community and recycles money back into their local area. We spent a good part of the last six months getting to the bottom of what sort of people get the ball rolling, who have the entrepreneurial spark to mobilise their neighbourhood in this way. We engaged Britain Thinks, who polled over 2,000 adults across the country and ran focus groups in London, Liverpool, Sheffield and East Anglia to find out who would want to become involved in a community business.
The results were both reassuring and a surprise. The 16% of the general population who said they were very likely to personally lead, run or volunteer with a community business tallies with the 18% who regularly report being involved in local social action. But there were other aspects of the research that leaped out at us, that pointed towards community business being a new nexus between the enterprising and the civic-minded. For example, significantly more young people would set up a community business than might get a local charity going. And as it’s an inclusive business model it attracts people from diverse backgrounds: 21% of BAME groups say they are very likely to get involved in one, compared to 13% white British.
Armed with this data, we set out on the road to validate it with our community business leaders. Our first stop was Totnes in Devon where Dave Chapman and Anna Lodge, both directors of Totnes Community Development Society pored over our market research in the shadow of the eight acre former Dairy Crest site next to the railway station. Intensively over the last two years, the Society had engaged the local community in a highly creative process that shaped the development from a literally blank canvas; individual memories and feelings were captured about the Dairy Crest site that closed in 2007, that directly influenced the design and determined the planning consent as a result of which the community will end up with a vibrant new neighbourhood that they will own and run. It includes everything from a hotel and housing (affordable accommodation is an issue in Totnes), a community-owned renewable energy centre partly powered by the local river which will help make the development low-carbon, and spaces for local people to run small enterprises.
When we presented the 16% figure of those very likely to get involved in community business, eyebrows were raised; ‘why so low?’ was their reaction. Dave and Anna and the other leading lights behind the scheme wanted to make what is now known as ‘Atmos Totnes’ the very first Community Right to Build order in England. As part of that formal planning process the Local Authority held a referendum asking whether the development should be given planning permission. Leading to the referendum the vision and driving momentum behind the community-led engagement was not the desire for any particular outcome. Rather the focus was on a process that would enable the community to design the outcome that would meet their needs. With no campaigning, information provision only and local media coverage, there was a 31% turnout across the town at the referendum, a figure reportedly higher than many local elections. Of those that voted, an overwhelming 86% were pro their community development going ahead.
If Totnes is anything to go by, once a neighbourhood sees the potential of a meaningful community business forming in their midst, it has the potential to engage and mobilise significant swathes of the population. The 16% very likely to get involved is a great starting point but once you can see, breathe and imagine the benefits, then a real life community business can be for all