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Community business 2017: the highs and lows

The year ended with a flagship community business going into administration, but the sector as a whole had much to celebrate in 2017, says Vidhya Alakeson

England’s 6600 community businesses end 2017 optimistically. According to Power to Change’s annual assessment of the community business market published last week, 63 per cent are confident about their financial prospects for the year ahead, compared to 47 per cent when asked the same question last year, and in marked contrast to falling confidence among small businesses generally.

Community businesses have weathered the storm of cuts to national and local government funding over the last five years and are now seeing new opportunities emerge from this prolonged period of austerity.

Central among these is the growth of asset transfer from local authorities to community organisations. This picked up pace in 2017, with a number of councils looking to transfer multiple assets into community hands.

Coventry Council, for example, recently agreed the transfer of 27 heritage assets to Historic Coventry Trust, the single biggest transfer of heritage assets – fitting as the city prepares to be the UK city of culture in 2021. Local authorities in Bristol, Leeds and Birmingham are all looking to follow suit, transferring community centres, libraries and other assets to community businesses.

Community-led housing received a boon earlier this month, with the confirmation that the government would invest £60m in the sector each year for the next three years. This will drive a pipeline of new affordable homes, as well as creating assets that reap long-term benefits for their communities.

Beyond this however, government action has largely bypassed community businesses, focusing time and again on cities and city regions. Whether the Transforming Cities Fund announced in the autumn budget or the government’s industrial strategy, devolution is failing to reach deep down into neighbourhoods and communities. Against this backdrop, we eagerly await the findings of the localism commission supported by Locality and Power to Change and chaired by Lord Kerslake to give new impetus in 2018 to push power further into local areas.

In 2017 community businesses continued to draw strength from their communities – their single biggest asset. Alongside 35,000 employees, community businesses in England rely on a remarkable 119,500 volunteers, with community hubs, transport, retail and energy having a higher ratio of volunteers to staff.

Community capital continues to underpin much of the success of community business, with almost £3m being raised this year in community shares. Despite the sad news earlier this month that Hastings Pier Charity, one of the flagship community shares projects, has gone into administration, the patient, mission-aligned capital that community shares can deliver and the community ownership they confer remain critical to the growth of community business.

This has also been a year for looking back and looking forward. Steve Wyler’s history of community business was published, reminding us that local people coming together and combining enterprise with social purpose to improve their lives and their neighborhoods has a rich history dating back hundreds of years.

At the same time, Julia Unwin launched her Enquiry into the Future of Civil Society in which, I hope, the people-powered, entreprise-led approach of community business will be as important to the future as it clearly has been in the past and continues to be today.

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