Not So Grim Up North (or Why Regional Social Enterprise Partnerships struggle in the South but thrive in the North)

Why is it that while regional Social Enterprise Partnerships in the South of England are dropping like nine-pins, those in the North seem to be going from strength to strength?

I was at the North East Social Enterprise Conference yesterday where the irrepressible Val Jones, who leads Social Enterprise North West, set out the exciting programme for the coming year across the North of England, including the development of Social Enterprise North - a new body to co-ordinate work across all of Northern England. which will share experience of the big ERDF social enterprise development programmes across the North, and carry forward a number of other progammes, such as Shared Growth – at last the social enterprise movement thinking seriously about replication – and the Northern Social Enterprise Academy – itself a replication learning from pioneering work still further north in Scotland.

I would appeal to the remaining regional Social Enterprise Partnerships in the South of England – some of which I know are struggling – to visit Social Enterprise North East, North West, or Yorkshire & Humber to help work out the secrets of success – and to social enterprise organisations in the regions that have closed down to look at developing new more viable regional bodies, modelled on the good practice in the North.

My own suspicion is that the very factors which favoured the South a few years ago – especially closeness to government – made it more difficult for them to weather the change in government and funding environment.  As Val said (I'm paraphrasing): 'It's tough, but so are we.'

Nobody better exemplifies this than another strong northern woman – Karen Wood, who leads Social Enterprise North East. When the North East Social Enterprise Partnership ran out of money a few years ago Karen's answer was simple – she went out and earned some.

I know I'm in danger of propagating the 'gritty northerner' stereotype, and perhaps there is a grain of truth behind this mythology; but seriously, how on earth did those so-called 'social enterprise' bodies in the South wander so far from enterprise as to end up just like voluntary sector bodies, thinking of themselves as entirely dependent on the RDA or other governement hand-outs?

The Conference also saw the launch of the excellent Manifesto for Social Enterprise in Northumberland – the best document of it's kind I've seen – which I was delighted to see opens with the statement that

'the term social enterprise is in reality more of a verb than a noun – it's a way of doing things that is common to many types of voluntary and community organisations, not just those that describe themselves as 'social enterprises'

Readers of my blog will know that I've long believed that the attempt to think of 'social enterprises' as a type of organisation (a noun) rather than an activity that might be undertaken by any kind of organisation (a verb) is a canker at the heart of our movement - precisely because it disguises the very real differences in culture and practice between social enterprise and private enterprise on the one hand and the voluntary sector on the other.  It leads to the mistaken idea that, if a social enterprise is a type of organisation, well then all you need to do is set one up and - hey presto! - you can do it!

Maybe those Social Enterprise Partnerships that ended up behaving just like voluntary sector bodies missed this very point: it doesn't really matter what you say you are, or what other people say you are – it's what you actually do that counts, especially when the going gets tough.

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A bit of challenge...

Hi Geof. 

I like the idea, but I think the north-south thing is a bit overdone, and a little simplistic.

For one, you miss out the Midlands / East - SEWM lost its RDA funding first of all, and became a genuine membership services body...though still struggled and has now been absorbed into a strong social enterprising housing association. SEEM similarly is having its struggles, and is down to a single individual. SEEE has an active board and continues to work hard to network and inform its members in the East. And so on - many with similar staff numbers to northern bodies.

It also ignores the differences in each region - SEast never got RDA money in the first place; RISE in the South West closed in large part because of the Mark company exit (im simplifying a complex situation here) but there are strong local networks in Bristol (a real social enterprise hub) and Plymouth emerging among other areas of the South West. SEL arguably did become over-reliant on government spend, though we've worked hard at SEUK to ensure there's some continuation & the legacy of its work is not lost.

Where Val has been exceptional is in transforming the business model of SENW to one focused on European funding as a replacement (& more) for RDA funding. Of course, some areas of the country have more access to European funds than others, but this was a savvy and entrepreneurial reaction to a changing context and climate. We are working hard at the centre to ensure that the next round of EU structural funds from 2014 are also available and well-purposes for social enterprise.

So I'm not sure the north-south thing quite stacks up. Which is not the same as saying that there aren't useful lessons to learn. And that more collaboration couldn't be useful. At SEUK, whether it's the Social Value Act, batting away Salesforce, or lobbying for the next £6bn of EU structural funds, we continue to try and benefit the sector, north & south; and we are strongest working together.

i do completely agree that social enterprise is about cultural, mindset, attitude, behaviours etc. A legal structure doesn't guarantee anything....


What about the North East?

You don't mention the North East Social Enterprise Partnership Nick, which is in many ways the more interesting example - although it has European funding now, it had to earn it's way through a few years there.  For regions like SEEM and SEEE this provides a great model, doesn't it?  Both the North East and the North West are indeed entrepreneurial, but the North East has demonstrated that you don't need continuous public funding to continue great work - and be ready for new funding opportunities when they do come along - AND, moreover, to be strong and independent enough not to chase funding for it's own sake, but for what really needs to be done.

It's true that European funding is easier in some regions than in others - just as RDA funding was (as your example of the South East perhaps indicates) - but if you take a wider view of funding across public, private and third sector sources, I suspect you'd find the North of England among the least favoured.


Hi Geof - sorry, missed your reply till now.

Don't disagree with any of this - public sector funding has been cut everywhere; some RDA £ went first, some later, others were more affected by local authority cuts where their money came from there, others much less so. At a national level, we face the same from central government (though are more fortunate that ours was transitioned over 3 years to £0). This has meant that it is the enterprising and entrepreneurial that survive and thrive, as you indicate at both SENW + NESEP (I know SENW's record better, so spoke to that, but am sure you are right in what you say above). In the long run, this is probably no bad thing, though some excellent work and people have been lost to the movement in the interim.

I don't know the answer to your point about money in total per region, though I think these challenges are faced across the country, primarily by social enterprises on the frontline, of course - my only point was that I think many of the behaviours and drive and commitment you rightly identify in SENW + NESEP above can also be found in many of the other bodies, and that there is much more in common across the country than any perceived divides.