As our council continues down its chosen path of abdicating responsibility for much of our civic life in Canterbury, it’s increasingly the case that voluntary organisations are stepping in to meet the challenges that result.
In many ways that response is positive. Local people ought to be engaged with the organisations that work in their communities and are best placed to understand their needs and design services to meet them.
Without those people stepping forward, we’d have lost the magnificent Westgate Hall, for example, to housing instead of gaining both a great cinema and preserving a versatile, historic, architecturally interesting and community focused amenity.
In many ways, Westgate Hall is the epitome of community engagement: a small group of people taking on a council which wanted to demolish it. They won the right to keep the hall and then secured the funding to not only preserve, but to enhance the building.
A team to manage and promote it was created. It worked hard to put something back into the community life of Canterbury through working with other charities of all sorts who needed a venue as well as providing a place for weddings, gigs, fund-raising nights, dancing, and university graduation events.
You can see the same sort of thing happening with Whitstable Museums as well, as the council’s decision not to fund things – they don’t like the word “cuts” – puts more onus on volunteers to deliver services which used to be provided by the council.
Citizens Advice – whose Board, like Westgate Hall, I used to sit on – also relies heavily on volunteers, as well as financial donations.
So does homeless charity Catching Lives, the Kent Savers Credit Union, and so many other local groups.
Which is great, up to a point. But there is one aspect to all this that we need to address if we are to get the best out of the exciting potential opportunities which community based organisations offer.
Simply, the challenge is one of democracy and ownership. As things stand, no one actually “owns” most of these organisations, and as a result there is no meaningful oversight of their activities since in effect they have nobody to answer to.
Can we resolve this and still motivate people to volunteer their time and skills? It is essential that we do, given that the council is continuing to pursue its strategy of declining responsibility for civic assets and activities (like the King’s Hall in Herne Bay) and the potential benefits if we can harness and motivate more people to support these organisations.
What’s more, not only does a suitable form of ownership exist, but it could also be applied to other sectors too with really positive results.
What is that model? Social Enterprise.
In brief, that’s where the staff or the customers, or a combination, jointly own the business. Kent Savers (which I wrote about two weeks ago) is a good example, owned by its customers and run for their benefit. It’s not a charity, but a not-for-profit business.
That model could be applied to a lot of the sorts of activities which are currently being handed off by the council to the voluntary sector.
It could also be a great way of growing other businesses through motivating their staff. I have argued for a long time that, for example, small businesses would benefit from schemes which gradually allow their staff to become the principal owners – the so-called John Lewis model.
Especially when the people who set up small enterprises are ready to retire, that ability to hand on ownership to their staff rather than close down might well save jobs and well-loved businesses – just think of the long established shops that have closed recently as examples – and keep the local economy afloat, or better still help it grow.
That won’t happen by accident. To make these social enterprises work people need support in terms of business, legal and financial advice, and perhaps some seed funding.
A progressive council could do all that without putting at risk its own financial position, and indeed would probably benefit financially.
The cost could be much less than the £9 million being borrowed to build the Station Road West car park or the £75 million to buy half of Whitefriars, for example.
We could, for example, set up a social enterprise bus company and subsidise that rather than Stagecoach, keeping the money in the local economy. The same too with Serco’s refuse collection service, as an alternative to bringing it back directly under the council.
All this and more is possible. The potential in this to liberate staff, improve services to customers based on local knowledge and motivate employees, to run things for benefits which are not merely financial but which are local, is exciting and very achievable. It is being done in other areas with some great results.
You can guess that under the unimaginative administration in Military Road that it is unlikely to happen. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking about.