Leading a community business in one of the most deprived parts of Leeds, I am close to the action every day. Today, I helped a man who may have been slightly intoxicated try to figure out how to cash a refund cheque from a well-known utility, without a bank account. That he’s a vulnerable drug user with a number of substance addictions will have mattered not a jot to the utility firm, who have overcharged him in excess of £125; a sum, I imagine, he can ill afford.
On the radio the other morning, news of another major utility contacting vulnerable customers with advice if their power or water had been cut off, but how many people register as a vulnerable customer?
In our community business we pick up these pieces, and people, every day. People failed by corporatism, by big business for whom the customer is a number or an account.
We are small and local. We know people by name or sight. The man I helped today, I know his name and am aware of some of his circumstances, so we can offer a human response.
In so many ways the failure of Carillion is what happens when corporatism goes even further and the damage is widespread. Employees, pension funds, small businesses, families of those employed; who in the business cares or takes responsibility? We’ve watched the bosses of Carillion being grilled by the House of Commons committee, chaired, as it happens, by our constituency MP Rachel Reeves, but the shamelessness and lack of accountability of the men in suits is terrifying. I am a fan of caring capitalism. I think we do need a market to ensure value, innovation and entrepreneurship, but the type of capitalism that produces large robotic corporations and reduces the customer to just a number must be wrong. We need human interaction and emotion in this equation.
Large corporations employ large accountancy firms and auditors who advise on tax efficiency and avoidance. But in this case these accountants, or the auditors, have failed to pick up on a company that was really struggling financially, and has failed spectacularly. Were these accountants and the directors of Carillion really unaware of how serious the company situation was? They continued to ensure the corporate rewards remained high and dividends were paid while other parts of the business, such as the pension fund, were left to flounder.
In the end, it’s always people who lose out. They lose a job, they lose income. Small businesses have to write off outstanding invoices. The unwinding of Carillion will no doubt see the accountant’s fees paid first. Them’s the rules. Yet the directors may walk away with wages and bonuses in their back pockets. Is this really the way we want business to be? Faceless, inhuman and greedy?
There is a different way; a capitalism that embraces localism and community, where efficiency and service can thrive with a human touch.
Community business is such an approach, where our objectives aren’t just to make a profit or a surplus, but to provide social value and give something back.
We need more of this, not less, and we need to find more ways to invest in and build our communities. What could be better than building a small local business that makes a difference to people’s lives, where they know your name and are close to and part of the action every day? Growing their business whilst growing their community. That’s a future I’d be proud to be part of.