Putting community business in the spotlight for party conference season

It has been a busy party conference season at Power To Change. Our CEO, Vidhya Alakeson, Ailbhe McNabola, Head of Research and Policy, and Richard Harries, Director of the Research Institute sum up the last few weeks.

Whilst most of you were getting back to work after the summer break, we were on the road visiting Bournemouth, Brighton, Manchester and Glasgow for the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative and Cooperative party conferences. As ever, the conference season was a whirl of activity; here are some of our highlights and takeaways for community businesses.

At the Liberal Democrat conference, we hosted an event in partnership with Demos, where we asked how to support and grow the community energy sector. The panel included Ed Davey MP, author of the coalition government’s community energy strategy and a committed supporter of the sector; Wera Hobhouse MP, the party lead for environment and climate change; and Rachel Coxcoon, a district councillor in the Cotswolds and extremely well-informed on the development of community-owned renewable energy projects. Unsurprisingly, there was strong support in the room for community energy projects and for pushing government – or a new government, whenever that happens – to do more to support this sector.

At the Labour conference, we hosted a discussion with IPPR North on how new funding for towns can benefit the communities that live there. Reviving so-called ‘left behind’ places, in particular towns that have not seen the investment or growth that cities have in recent years, is a topic that people are really thinking about right now. Our panel was packed with thoughtful people: Chi Onwurah MP, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Yvette Cooper MP, Chair of the Labour Towns Group, Jamie Driscoll, relatively newly-elected Mayor for North of Tyne, and Jess Steele, Director, Jericho Road Solutions and a former member of our Community Business Panel. The panel agreed that the priorities for towns included growing the local asset base, giving the community agency, recognising that consolidating economic activity and public services into larger urban centres doesn’t serve towns or the people who live in them, and recognising the importance of transport and connectedness.

A week later, we were with Onward in Manchester, debating localism and how to ‘set places free’ to make their own decisions and shape their own futures. Neil O’Brien MP and Eddie Hughes MP talked about the importance of empowering local people, and Lord O’Shaughnessy set out three very clear reasons for supporting localism – it’s practical, it’s efficient, and it’s needed to tackle the income disparity we have across the UK. And he set a clear challenge for the political parties: “The next election is going to be won and lost in towns”. David Skelton added his view that that, to succeed, the Conservative party should be defined by turning around communities that have long been forgotten – devolving not only to cities, but to towns and to neighbourhoods.

At the Coop Party Conference in Glasgow, we joined a panel alongside Glenn Bowen from the Wales Cooperative Centre and Councillor Chris Penberthy from Plymouth City Council, to discuss what it will take to meet the Party’s commitment to double the cooperative economy. Alongside the importance of education and infrastructure – also borne out by our experience of supporting community businesses – there was recognition that coops emerge from wider community development. There needs to be investment in community organising, asset-based community development, and other approaches which can create the fertile ground from which new community business and coop ideas can emerge. Investing in business development support alone won’t be enough.

A common theme emerging from the conferences was around the importance of place and of supporting people at local and neighbourhood level – whether that’s to establish a community energy facility to benefit a town or village, or devolving power to places that can harness local resources and experiment with different ways of doing things. Politically, it’s going to be a busy autumn with a lot of obvious distractions from the domestic policy agenda. All the more encouraging, then, that we had such strong engagement across the parties for putting communities at the heart of social and economic renewal. The key will be translating these warm words into tangible support for communities, putting them in the lead on decision-making and development.