Community business will give real power back to our fractured country

The Brexit vote is a cry of pain. Millions of otherwise powerless people were given a piece of paper and a once-in-a-generation chance to express their anger and frustration. This is not empowerment but at least it has brought questions of power to the forefront.

For years now in some of the poorest communities in the country, people have been taking control of their present and their future in a very practical way through a grassroots phenomenon known as community business. In Hastings, we proved that local people could solve an ‘impossible’ problem – the abandonment of our pier by offshore owners was destroying our local economy. After a long struggle, the restored pier reopened this year in community ownership and is supporting a renaissance of the White Rock neighbourhood and the town as a whole. This is not an isolated case. The Granby area in Liverpool had been mistreated and stigmatised for decades but local residents have triumphed and now their community land trust is leading the ‘self-renovation’ of the area, including restoring 10 houses for affordable rent and sale, developing a beautiful Winter Garden as a community facility and rebuilding the commercial heart of Granby piece by piece. These small acts of real power have a disproportionate effect.

In both these cases, and many more, neighbourhoods were let down and left behind by those that govern them and by private organisations that owned and neglected precious local assets. Those communities came together and set up trading businesses rooted in their locality, businesses controlled by them, accountable to them and they are thriving. By the end of 2015, the community business sector was over 5,000 strong and is experiencing healthy growth of 9% per annum.

These community businesses have been supported by Power to Change, the charitable trust using £150 million from the Big Lottery Fund to support and grow community business. Its name has never been more relevant. The power to make real change and to heal the rifts in society, communities and families has to mean more than a cross in a box and the post-referendum chaos shows that it cannot be left to the political parties.

Now the community of Hastings is mobilising to take on more assets, both in the White Rock area to make sure the positive pier regeneration does not lead to negative displacement and sterilisation of the eccentric, diverse community, and in the Ore Valley where huge sites left derelict for decades will be the focus for a community self-build that leads directly to further community businesses.

With the help of Power to Change and the experience of community businesses, there is the potential to harness the fury that has dealt such a blow to the status quo, by building power, pride and passion to create real change at neighbourhood level: by the people for the people.

I’ll be meeting with the other members of the Power to Change Community Business Panel in Hastings in September to discuss the impact of Brexit and how we can support community businesses.

If you are a community business, we want to hear your thoughts and concerns following the EU referendum result so we can take these into account when developing proposals on how we can best support community businesses to grow post-Brexit.

Send your views by email to info@thepowertochange.org.uk and put in the subject ‘EU referendum’.

Jess Steele played a leading role in saving Hastings Pier. She is Director of Jericho Road Solutions, a Community Business Panel member at Power to Change and was awarded an OBE in January 2016 for her services to community assets in the UK.