Our High Streets Can Thrive Again With Social Enterprise

Posted: 07 May 2018, in Blog

A version of this article appeared in the monthly Highland business magazine ‘Executive’, May 2018. See page 42 ‘Executive Soapbox’ and the Inverness Courier.


Our high streets can thrive again with social enterprise

The future of our high streets is a hot topic for many people across Scotland. Towns and cities are being transformed by changes in shopping habits, new technologies and big corporate out-of-town developments.

Many communities in both urban and rural Scotland are tackling these challenges head on and finding positive, long-term solutions. From community-led regeneration, to development trusts, social housing and community owned land. Alongside food co-operatives, renewable energy projects and Business Improvement Districts, there is much to celebrate.

Social enterprise is often the glue that holds this all together – a growing movement of independent businesses that use enterprise to deliver lasting social and environmental change. Any money they make through trading is reinvested into their specific social or charitable purpose and kept in the local community. They can operate as registered charities, co-operatives, Community Interest Companies (CICs) or a range of other models.

Some social enterprises have become household names like Street Soccer Scotland, The Big Issue, Social Bite, The Wise Group, Kibble, GHA, Our Power and Bookdonors, alongside the rising stars of credit unions, co-operatives and social housing pioneers.

There are about 5,600 social enterprises in Scotland and a huge 34% of these are in rural areas. 70% of social enterprises are led by and accountable to people in a local community. People in the Highlands and islands, in particular, are expert at finding community-driven solutions – taking control and stepping up where the public and private sectors have failed.

There are many brilliant examples in the Highlands and islands. There’s Eilean Eisdeal Trust reviving the community hall and harbour, Sleat Community Trust on Skye driving forward retail outlets and renewables and Cope Ltd providing jobs for disabled people with the Shetland Soap Company. There are wilderness adventures run by Venture Mòr, Applecross Community Company for sustainable development, New Start Highland for employment and Helmsdale and District Development Trust tackling a shortage of affordable housing.

There’s plenty of support available for those wanting to set up social enterprises. Impact Hub Inverness provides business support, serving the whole Highlands and islands, plus there’s Firstport, Just Enterprise and local Business Gateways. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has a remit to support the growth of social and community businesses. Development Trusts Association Scotland and Co-operative Development Scotland offer support too.

Buying land and buildings and accessing funding from e.g. the Community Land Fund, can be a highly effective way to boost the local economy. Owning assets like these can give a community real strength, using the powers in the Community Empowerment Act. This can then attract further investment – and crucially keep that investment in the local economy, instead of leaking out to other places or to feed corporate shareholders.

Of course there are no quick fixes and it can take a lot of hard work to turn around long-term decline in our high streets and neighbourhoods. Communities in remote and rural areas, as well as the big cities, face tough challenges to drive forward regeneration. There’s also the issue of tax and tax breaks, an issue often mentioned by struggling small businesses, including retailers. We need to ensure that politicians are not only listening to these concerns but taking action and intervening whenever possible.

There are alternatives though. Our high streets can be re-made as attractive places that people want to visit again. Community cafes, arts spaces for families, sports centres and places for business development can complement and support existing retailers.

The way forward really is the do-it-yourself approach. People can come together in their neighbourhoods and form a committee, development trust or community co-operative, identify the key issues and take practical action. Almost pretending that no external support exists is often the best way to find solutions – and there are different models to fit whatever works.

Certainly this can’t always be done alone. Local councils, enterprise agencies and government must also boost direct investment in local social enterprise development. They can help empower community groups to drive forward their own regeneration – learning directly from those parts of Scotland that are doing well. It’s really an issue of trust. Only by allowing local people to take control of their own neighbourhoods and their own futures will we achieve a genuine revival in our towns, villages and cities.