The Big Society: Civil society and business must work together

Peter Holbrook 8.03am

The Big Society vision hinges on economic reform balanced with support for local and civic life and these cannot be addressed separately. We are told repeatedly about the roles of social enterprise, charities and communities in the Big Society, but what about private business? When are business leaders going to tell us how they will play their part in bringing about the Big Society? Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives simply won’t be enough.

Civil society and business must work together. They can no longer have competing goals, as has been the case for much of the last fifty years. The Big Society will succeed only if the Government tackles social and economic policy together. This is the way to get the country out of economic crisis and set us on the road to a sustainable recovery.

Yet at the moment we are travelling down the same old roads. Recent Government initiatives have been introduced to rebalance the economy and foster growth. They are designed to promote competitiveness and trade, and to include the Regional Growth Fund and Local Enterprise Partnerships, reviews of corporate taxation, intellectual property and regulation. At a tangent to these are policies designed to engage communities and civil society, and so to realise the Big Society vision; policies such as the 'right to buy' and 'right to challenge' in the Localism Bill, citizen action initiatives and the mutualisation of public services.

But where is the join? What happens when a group of citizens gets together to play their part in the Big Society and bids for a local facility? Or when a group of public sector colleagues gets together and decides to emerge as a mutual? Can they really walk into a high street bank and get a warm reception, from staff who know what they are talking about? Can they get the sort of lending rates they need? Will they be given the time and support they need to make these new and complex initiatives work? The Big Society Bank is one institution that can help but its capabilities are limited, with an investment value that is minute in comparison to high street banks and the City of London.

Social enterprises are more than worth the time and effort of the mainstream banks. Supported social enterprises have low failure rates. They have continued to grow throughout the recession. At the same time, they provide shared social value. They employ people who would otherwise find it difficult to get work. They build social capital in our communities. They are good businesses and great for our economy.

New legislation opens the way for a deluge of new social enterprises, which could revolutionise the UK economy. However, they will need a business community that understands their needs and is ready to support them. Economic and social policies must head in the same direction, not on a collision course. For this to happen, the business community is going to have to work with civil society a lot more closely and collaboratively in the future.

The Government cannot enforce this but by building bridges between economic and social policy, it can put us on the right road.

Peter Holbrook is Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, which represents a wide range of social enterprises, regional and national support networks and other related organisations. You can visit their website here.

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