The biggest challenge community businesses face might be how we describe their challenges

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We need to change the way we talk about the challenges of community business, says Bonnie Hewson.

Through this programme we work closely with six locally rooted catalyst organisations in Hartlepool, Grimsby, Wigan, Bradford, Leicester and Plymouth. The aim is to work together for 5 years (a relatively short period of time for a place-based funding programme) to build a shared understanding of the methods community organisations can take to catalyse community business in their neighbourhoods –  and the degree to which a number of community businesses with a shared vision, operating in a small area, can contribute to making a place better.

All this means I spend quite a bit of time thinking about what a ‘better’ place might actually look like and questioning how the language we use to describe places – deprived, left behind, low in social capital – does them a great disservice.

The organisations I work with, and their communities, have taught me a great deal about how dehumanising our report-writing shorthand can be – how it ends up widening the differences and minimising the similarities between places and the people who live there. Working together on their own collective vision statement for what their sector needs, the Empowering Places catalysts put it best:

“We are part of a random collection of people, a local social network, a community, a neighbourhood, a place. Covid-19 has shown we are NOT a set of economic units and actors and shouldn’t be reduced to such. The post Covid-19 recovery should be built on the community networks and spirit seen during the lockdown period, including a recognition that putting people in ‘boxes’ is not helpful – they are not patients, customers, volunteers… they do not have mental health needs, disabilities, dependency issues… they are all people, individuals with complex lives that are sometimes difficult, sometimes joyful.”

Funders, policy writers, the media, will always try to simplify the complexity of the wider system, to find a phrase that sums up an issue. But the point isn’t so much the language but the thinking that goes hand-in-hand with it. Places are categorised too often according to their contribution to the economy – to growth and GDP. If nothing else Covid-19 has shown us that ultimately wealth is not what really matters – it is health, wellbeing and equality; and it is community, and the compassion and confidence to act together for mutual benefit.

If even the former governor of the Bank of England governor is publicly decrying how we have come to esteem financial value over human value you know there is change in the air. If we want to improve the foundations upon which our society is built so that we can thrive then we need to stop just measuring national growth and find new measurements of prosperity and success that represent what really matters to us. And then, in all likelihood, we would find the language we use and the policy decisions we make shifting along with them.

It is for this reason that we have teamed up with The Centre for Thriving Places to undertake  an assessment of each of our Empowering Places towns against their wellbeing economy framework, The Thriving Places Index (TPI). The six ward-level places in the Empowering Places programme are all in the top 10% most deprived according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) but they all have different challenges as well as different strengths, allies and opportunities.

We chose the places because they were places where people experienced deprivation and we wanted to understand the challenges of establishing community businesses in these places, we have learnt a lot about that (of which more in a future article) but we have also become very aware that we don’t want to fall into the trap of measuring how our places have got better against a baseline that doesn’t reflect reality. The IMD is heavily weighted towards income and employment indicators – and what you measure often becomes what you value, so we wanted to look more into how to measure what matters.

The Centre for Thriving Places has looked at their indicators for six Local Authority areas where we work: Hartlepool, North East Lincolnshire, Leicester, Plymouth, Wigan, Bradford and provided comparisons with statistically similar local authorities, as well as tracking changes over time from 2010.

Their indicators delve into local conditions for wellbeing, equality and sustainability and their report goes into more detail on work and the local economy, and people and communities – providing us with insight into these contextual areas without falling into the usual traps of counting jobs created.

Unlike the IMD, places in the Thriving Places Index aren’t ranked against each other according to how ‘bad’ they are, but each is taken as its own entity and given a 360-degree assessment of its strengths and challenges.

Whilst the ward level areas we are working in are much more granular than the local authority areas that the Thriving Places Index (TPI) covers, examining the challenges faced by the wider areas has already helped to set the scene better for work being undertaken at a local level.

For instance, in Hartlepool one of the main challenges highlighted by the TPI was mental and physical health – the catalyst in Hartlepool, The Wharton Trust in Dyke House, has supported a number of community businesses to emerge and thrive that focus specifically on mental health and physical health, showing that their approach is directly addressing the most challenging local needs.

Similarly, in North East Lincolnshire the most pressing challenges were around unemployment, local business healthy behaviours and life expectancy – the catalyst there, Centre4 in Nunsthorpe and Bradley Park, is establishing an ethical recruitment agency and a community gym. In Wigan one of the challenges is people’s participation in their community – Abram Ward’s community businesses include a Men’s Shed and they are starting to get going with a community organising approach.

Ultimately all frameworks are proxies and reduce the complexities of a living in a place to a set of indicators and numbers. But attempting to refocus the lens on the challenges that matter most to people, and that stand in the way of people thriving in that place, is a better approach than blindly striding forward with measurements for success that take us in the wrong direction – away from greater wellbeing, sustainability and equality.

We have already started to take this work further, joining forces with Carnegie UK Trust to fund the Centre for Thriving Places to adapt the Thriving Places Index to a town level and test the approach in Grimsby and Wigan. What if the primary goal of the economy was to grow wellbeing? What if we chose to value and measure this, and local places were supported to build their capacity to make their places better places to live? I’m sure we would talk about the challenges and opportunities differently – and ultimately would create the conditions in these places for people to achieve more of the things we all really value.

In this report, The Centre for Thriving Places uses the Thriving Places Index (TPI) to look at the conditions that support wellbeing, enabling communities to thrive fairly and sustainably, in six Local Authority areas: Hartlepool, North East Lincolnshire, Leicester, Plymouth, Wigan, Bradford.