Biting the ‘better’ bullet: Can community business make places better?

Power to Change’s work revolves around the idea that powerful communities are better places to live – and that communities can build their power by developing the skills to run their own locally owned and community accountable businesses and services. But how can we tell if we are right? Can community businesses have a transformative impact on their local areas?

Bonnie Hewson

Empowering Places Programme Manager

Understanding if neighbourhoods have become better places to live remains one of the trickiest areas for us to measure – harder than, for instance measuring our impact on our grantees or the wider sector, or the impact our grantees’ have on people through their activities. One of the challenges is how long it takes for places to change, and for those changes to make themselves visible in available datasets. To put it in standard economic terms: we aren’t talking number of jobs created by one business here, we are talking a decrease in unemployment in the area.

Another challenge for us lies in the fact that many of the metrics available that track places over time don’t relate that closely to the things we believe make places better to live in, nor do they show the wider benefits that community businesses might have – something I touched on in my blog at the end of last year – so we aren’t just interested in jobs and employment anyway, we are interested in how it feels to live in a place.

To tackle this challenge head on, in 2016 we embarked on a long-term project with Kantar Public to get to the heart of the question: do community business make places better? Kantar Public conduct the Community Life Survey every year for DCMS – it’s the standard national survey of the health of communities that tracks trends over time. We commissioned them to give the survey they were running in 2016/17 a ‘boost’ in some very local areas we were interested in – areas where a high-performing community business was operating. The results support the building and testing of statistical models that can be used alongside qualitative assessments and promise a new and rigorous way to determine whether community businesses make places better to live in in a visceral way. You can read more about the technical side of this work in Richard Harries blog here.

The survey looks closely at five areas – personal well-being; levels of volunteering; community cohesion; satisfaction with the local area; and social action and community empowerment. To us these measures of people’s wellbeing and engagement with their place are things that can really make a whole place feel better to live in. If people don’t have a sense of community pride and a belief in the power of their actions to make a difference the social capital is going to be lacking for collective efforts to succeed. The truth is, as with the chicken and the egg, community businesses both stem from and contribute to the sense of hope and power that people feel when they live in a place that is collectively trying to improve the lives of its residents.

Working in what are often described as ‘deprived’ and ‘left-behind’ places through our Empowering Places programme – wards in Bradford, Grimsby, Hartlepool, Leicester, Wigan and Plymouth – I have witnessed the groundwork that needs to be laid before people are ready to take the risks of embarking on new collective endeavours, such as establishing a community business. Nurturing relationships and building confidence, often over a period of years, is the first work of the community anchor organisations we work with, well before any enterprise coaching and governance support is needed.

“Everyday I see people with increased confidence, in part because they are more connected and doing something that is creating change…[Thanks to membership and volunteering in community businesses] people talk more – people don’t just shop they sit and have a cuppa and a chat. So maybe the biggest changes we are seeing are in confidence and connectedness… We don’t have to look further than your own town, but we do need to make something in our towns that is worth looking to, so that it inspires those whose horizons are drawn in by poverty.”

– Centre4, the Empowering Places catalyst in Grimsby

In 2017 we published the first part of the story of our work with Kantar: the results of a pilot testing the Neighbourhood Life Survey booster approach in six places. The next year we undertook boosts in our six Empowering Places, and then the following year (2019) we revisited our first cohort of six to see what had changed. We are now able to share the results of this latest visit in a report published today: Measuring the impact of community business at neighbourhood level.

The results are encouraging, suggesting that strong community businesses can strengthen civic participation and feelings of belonging, encourage neighbourliness, build community power, and improve feelings of wellbeing and satisfaction in their areas – though only time will tell where the strongest trends lie and whether different types of businesses have different impacts in places with different challenges. Later this year we will have our 2020 results from a survey that revisited our six Empowering Places areas: we hope this will start to evidence the added value of the Empowering Places programme, as well as showing that laying the groundwork for community businesses to emerge is itself enough to start making places better.