Bridging the gap between Liverpool’s community business ambition and reality

New research by the Heseltine Institute finds the community business sector across Liverpool City Region (LCR) is thriving. Yet community businesses don’t feel supported or valued by the public sector. How can that change? Development Manager Danielle Cohen shares her thoughts.

 

In a recent report, carried out by the Heseltine Institute and funded by Power to Change, we found that there are around 84 community businesses in LCR, with an annual turnover of £22m, owning £38m of net assets. They employ 600 paid staff and many more volunteers. This reinforces the importance of the sector to the city region economy and highlights the potential of this growing sector.

It is no surprise that the report backs up the view that the sector is thriving – stories like those behind community bakery Homebaked, community-led housing scheme Granby Four Streets, Kitty’s Launderette and so many others are well-known, and Liverpool has a strong reputation as a city where communities are using trading activities to improve their areas and nurture long-neglected neighbourhoods. This is part of the reason why Power to Change is focusing on Liverpool City Region as one of our three large-scale ‘Cities and Counties’ priority places.

So why, then, do they not feel as though they are taken seriously? At the event launching the report, community businesses expressed frustration at public sector procurement requirements that preclude them from bidding, and shared stories of communities running into the sand while attempting to take ownership of assets from local authorities.

At the same time, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and the LCR Combined Authority (comprising Liverpool City Council, Knowsley, Sefton, the Wirral, Halton and St Helen’s) were positive about the contribution community business can make. These institutions are increasingly acknowledging the value of the social contribution made by community business and the role the sector must play in achieving inclusive growth, as highlighted in our CEO’s recent blog post. The will exists but community businesses are saying that practice is yet to catch up with rhetoric.  The sector has come of age – yet still feels it is treated as a child. There is a lack of trust: among those local government commissioners and officers who are not yet truly valuing community business’s ability to deliver, and within the community business sector itself, bruised by past encounters.

So how can this gap in trust be bridged? Through our priority places ‘Cities and Counties’ programme we have been working with community businesses and with public, private and voluntary sector partners in the City Region for over 12 months, bringing them together to identify the priorities for creating the conditions that will enable community business to thrive.

Businesses like Granby, Kitty’s Launderette and Homebaked were built by passionate people emboldened by their strength of conviction. Many of these grassroots initiatives have grown into well-established and self-sustaining businesses powered by local people, often helped along with funding from organisations like Power to Change.  But if the sector is to grow in terms of scale, influence and resilience then change is needed at multiple levels.

In LCR we are pursuing several strands. We continue to fund community businesses through our existing programmes and are supporting the sector to scope out the support it needs and can offer to a new generation of up-and-coming community businesses. We are actively engaged in dialogue with stakeholders including the Combined Authority, the LEP and others from across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Our aim is to support these players to act together and take the leap of faith that is needed to change policy and practice and grow the community business sector to the next level, building trust and sharing power with the people.

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