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Doing what works

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 12

Providing public sector type services with private sector business sense and voluntary sector social principles is possible. Anne Ibrahim, who runs social enterprise Big Society Works, talks to PSE about bringing a closed community centre back to life without grants or going begging for donations.

In eight weeks, a closed-down community centre whose local authority found it unsustainable to run was refurbished, reopened and given a new lease of life, all without grants or donations.

Cheshire East Council brought in a new social enterprise company, Big Society Works, which managed to re-engage people living near the George’s Centre in Crewe – formerly the Marshfield Bank community centre – and apply some hard-headed business sense to get it on a sustainable footing.

Anne Ibrahim, who founded the company, says its role is only temporary, and the centre will, when appropriate, be handed over to its new management team.

Ibrahim, who worked in the public sector for nearly 20 years before setting up Big Society Works, most recently as regional director of Sport England, told PSE: “We appreciate it’s very easy for consultants to say ‘you can stand on your own two feet without a grant from the council’, but it’s actually not that easy to do in reality.”

The centre, when it closed, had no money, no volunteers, no customers, and even no gas and electricity, Ibrahim said. It’s in a deprived part of Crewe.

The initial agreement was for Big Society Works to become the leaseholder for 12 months, from July 2011, while the council remained the landlord.

Ibrahim explained: “We took it on while ensuring the council knew we needed the freedom to be able to act and run it as a community business. We didn’t want to have to go back to the council to ask permission every five minutes.

“There’s not an absolute deadline after which we have to disappear, and of course we wouldn’t abandon the centre. The point of continuity for us is the staff we have in place. We will teach them to build the right systems and procedures, so they will be employed by the new vehicle that takes responsibility for the centre.

“If we took over from the council and did everything, people would just relax and do things the same old way, and that’s how the centre got into trouble the last time round; it was quite exclusive and we’re very inclusive. We want it to work for everyone in the community.”

Key to the company’s thinking was doing things in a different way – and if this meant bringing in some private sector thinking and partners, then so be it.

She said: “My background is in the public sector, so I know what’s allowed and what’s not allowed and I’m very clear in terms of what’s possible and what’s not, so I said ‘you need to give us the freedom to try new things and work differently’.

“We said we will sweat the assets and generate an income so it becomes a sustainable community business, but we will also build capacity and put in place a structure to continue the business when we go, otherwise they’ve just moved dependency from the council to us.”

Risky business?

The company lent the centre £5,000 working capital to get it off the ground.

Ibrahim said: “We’re carrying a lot of the risk. But within 12 weeks, it was generating enough income for us to make the decision to hire a centre manager on a part-time basis. We wanted to do this and not just set it up as any business would or could and get it up-and-running, but actually deliver a lot through it in terms of added value.

“We didn’t apply for grants, we worked with local businesses to see how we could deliver something of mutual gain. We don’t beg, but we know that if we can show the centre as a valuable proposition to somebody, we will get their investment.”

This involved advertising a carpeting company in return for their services, for example, and bringing in Cheshire Probation Trust who helped with painting and tidying.

It has a kitchen and café, and sandwich delivery service, but Ibrahim said it has been important to get community input on what kind of food they want to be served, and to keep prices down.

She said: “We do two-course meals for £3.50, so people will come for homecooked, good quality food and for many of them it’s the only time they’re coming out in the week. It’s a good get together for them. We don’t make money on that, we break even.”

Profit vs people

She continued: “I believe we’re getting the balance right between social and economic drivers: we’re right there in the middle. If you go too far one way or the other, that’s where things fall down; that’s the biggest lesson for me. We don’t want to operate as a private business, and I know people here thought ‘oh God, there’s a business taking over, they’re going to hike all the prices’ – but the first thing we did is slash prices in the kitchen. We want volume and people using it.

“But we did look at the competition as any business would, and our marketplace positioning. It’s not wrong to be socially motivated, but you don’t want to make people dependent and make them beg. You need to recognise the value of what you’re delivering.

“I won’t go and ask somebody for something; I’ll present them with a business proposition to say we can do something for them, if they can do something for us, and let’s work together. For example, a local college, De Vere Academy, wants placements for young people learning to cook, and I want training for our volunteers. We work on the principle of barter as well; it’s not all about money.”

The centre has training rooms, socially motivating activities, things like judo, street dance and bingo, parties, training sessions – all offering a mix of income generation and community engagement.

Public, private and voluntary

Ibrahim said the sort of relationships and activities built up at the centre are a good indicator of the likely direction of many public services in the future, with councils having made clear that they do not have the resources to fund and maintain everything they once did, and many facilities already shutting up shop.

But the George’s Centre approach shows that local authorities can still be involved, rather than having to just sell assets off to the private sector.

Ibrahim explained: “There’s been a shift from councils as deliverers to councils as enablers. There’s a critical role here; this is a tripartite partnership in my view, between us, the council, and the community. It would fail if it was us on our own.

“We have had the absolute best network of support from the council. They’re not involved in direct delivery of what goes on, but they’ve helped us get to grips with the area and signpost people. But equally we’ve brought a different approach, especially in pushing back against grants and the obligations that entails, we’d be setting a precedent we can’t continue.

“This isn’t just a shift in terms of the public sector dumping things on the voluntary sector. There’s a role for the private sector here.”

They have partnered with a major local employer, for example, which hires out the centre for its recruitment drives. The company is now looking at doing ‘health checks’ at other local facilities to see if they can be kept open and managed in new ways, while they have had enquiries from as far away as Oxford and Glasgow for advice on doing similar things.

Ibrahim said: “It hasn’t been easy; there’s been a cultural change. People who worked here before want to do things the same way they did before, sometimes. But we have made good progress, and we are excited about the future.”

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