When Social Enterprise UK decided to give special recognition to areas buzzing with social enterprise activity with the launch of the ground breaking Social Enterprise Places initiative in 2013, it was Alston Moor which had the honour of becoming the UK’s first ever Social Enterprise Town. Since then four more places have been awarded this status with many more cities, towns and villages queuing up to gain this desired accolade.

Clive Hirst Social Enterprise Places ArchitectIntroducing Clive Hirst, Social Enterprise Places 'Architect'

Clive Hirst, the Chair of Social Enterprise Solutions CIC, is often described as the architect of the Social Enterprise Places scheme. As it was Clive and his team at Social Enterprise Solutions based in Blackpool who first came up with and researched the idea of creating a status based around social enterprise activity hotspots. The team took their inspiration from Garstang which is the world’s first Fair Trade Town which is only a few miles from where Social Enterprise Solutions is based.

Clive said: “After a decade, over 1000 Fair Trade Towns are spread across the globe, and the public awareness of Fair Trade is high. We thought we could achieve the same for social enterprise.”

After the research was carried out into creating a Social Enterprise Places initiative, the plan was presented to the SEUK Council on which Clive was an elected member at the time. The council decided to give the scheme the go ahead believing it could have real merit and in 2012 it became the formal policy of SEUK.

Social Enterprise Solutions is now working in partnership with SEUK to deliver the initiative and Clive’s role is to promote and act as an advocate for the initiative and to attend formal Social Enterprise Places launch events.

Clive said: “The fundamental purpose of the project is to raise the profile of social enterprise. We want ordinary people to know what social enterprise is, and for it to be seen as the business model of choice. Underpinning all this is a belief that social enterprises are a public good. Whilst producing wealth and employment, they benefit society and the environment. We need more of them.”

Social Enterprise becoming the business model of choice for many

It would appear that for many social enterprise is indeed becoming the business model of choice as the social enterprise sector in the UK is increasing all the time. In 2013 figures published in ‘The People’s Business’ report revealed that the social enterprise business sector had three times the start-up rate of the mainstream SME sector. The report also revealed that there are over 70,000 social enterprises in the UK which contributes 18.5 billion to the UK economy, employing almost a million people.

Clive believes there are a number of factors contributing to this increase in social enterprise activity:

  • Disillusionment with a failed capitalist model which produces world recessions whilst depleting our resources for the future.
  • A strong tradition in the UK of co-operatives, mutuals and charities, which share some of the characteristics of social enterprises.
  • A growing realisation that many services provided by the state can better be delivered through the social enterprise model. This is why there are “spin-outs” from the NHS and local government providing better services more efficiently.
  • Cross party support for social enterprise.
  • The work of SEUK and others in raising the profile and demonstrating the success of social enterprise.

alston town se town logo small

Alston Moor ... The Flagship Social Enterprise 'Place'

The launch of the Social Enterprise Places initiative was a big part of raising this awareness. Clive described what he believes made Alston Moor worthy of being the flagship place to launch the scheme.

“Alston Moor won a competition organised by SEUK to identify the worlds’ first Social Enterprise Place. Whilst I was not a judge for this, I know that Alston Moor fought off strong competition and thoroughly deserved the accolade. For its size, Alston Moor has a huge and varied social enterprise sector, with one social enterprise for around every 50 households. Is there anywhere else that can better this?”

The 1st Social Enterprise Town PlacesWhy are some communities a 'Hotbed' of social enterprise?

Social Enterprise solutions is currently undertaking a case study into why it is that certain communities like Alston Moor and other Social Enterprise Places like Plymouth and Digbeth develop into hotbeds of social enterprise activity.

Clive indicated that two factors seem paramount in Alston Moor’s development of a thriving social enterprise sector. “Alston Moor is isolated, so needs to deliver its own goods and services and social enterprise is the obvious model. Alston Moor is lucky to enjoy the services of key individuals who have a vision and make things happen.”

However early indications suggest that other communities develop social enterprise in different ways and for differing reasons.

Clive said: “In Plymouth, cross-sector working is crucial. They have a co-operative council which actively supports social enterprise. Plymouth University is the world’s first social enterprise university. The NHS in Plymouth delivers primary care though an enormous spin-out. All are linked by the active Plymouth Social Enterprise Network

Other areas, like Digbeth in Birmingham, see social enterprise as an engine of regeneration in a deprived area. I guess we will find other drivers. A common factor, though, might be the commitment of key individuals working together. Time will tell”.

So what are the Benefits?

Although the Social Enterprise Places initiative is still in its early days Clive believes the scheme will have a strong impact with many benefits to those who make the effort to gain the status. “The fact that five areas became Social Enterprise Places in 2013 and that more are queuing up in 2014 tells us that communities want this status and are prepared to work hard to achieve it. As with Fair Trade Towns, being a Social Enterprise Place is the right thing to do.”

Specific benefits to those places which gain the status hopefully will include:

  • More social enterprises delivering more and better services to the community
  • More opportunities for work and volunteering
  • Sustainable social and environmental initiatives
  • More inter-trading between social enterprises
  • The ability for social enterprise places to learn from each other
  • A stronger connection with universities and colleges
  • More “spin-outs”
  • Social enterprise becomes the default business model
  • Positive national, even international, publicity as the world perceives us to be social enterprise leaders.