We ask how our ‘Learning Lessons from Social Innovation’ research can inform policy that cultivates land based social enterprise and contributes to a social economy.

We have been conducting research, funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, into how social innovations including community HIV services, community recycling, local food growing, development trusts and community renewable energy generation have developed over time. As the Social Economy Alliance develops its manifesto to shape the ever-nearer 2015 election, we consider how themes from this work can inform the creation of a truly social economy.

Balancing Value and Impact

Social innovation usually begins with on-the-ground community ‘pull’, but government, funders and intermediary bodies often seek to provide a supportive ‘push’ to the growth of an innovation through the development of policy, and the provision of funding and support.

A potential outcome here is that the policy push supports the development of the innovation and makes it more commercially attractive, scaling its impact, but erodes the social value created by the methods being used to deliver those goals. In the case of recycling, for instance,  the private sector adopts the innovation, increasing the amount of waste recycled and increasing the ‘impact’ of the innovation. However the commercial waste management companies no longer focus on providing employment and training for  disadvantaged local people, money is drawn out of the local economy and residents are no longer immersed in the care of their neighbourhoods, reducing the social ‘value’ the innovation delivers. For our economy to be social, innovations need to retain their value, not just grow their impact.

Alongside these impact/value tensions, land based social enterprise suffers from concerns that policy may push environmental assets into community ownership too fast. As with fears around development trusts, ‘assets’ such as land can become liabilities if organisations don’t have the capacity or resources to take them on. Drained by the demands of costly assets, innovations risk being unable to deliver either value or impact.

A World of Potential

Land based social enterprise, if cultivated in a manner that retains both impact and value, has the potential to form an integral part of the social economy.  Organisations can bring under-managed, unused and costly environmental assets into productive use, delivering social goods such as renewable energy, healthy food, cultural events and services.  They can bolster local economies, improve the environment, regenerate neighbourhoods, improve physical and mental health and inspire active community participation.

In doing so, many organisations employ, train or rely on the volunteering of young people, equipping them with practical skills, professional experience and the opportunity to re-imagine and re-shape the places that have shaped them.Land based social enterprise is deeply connected to place, embedded in the local ecology, culture and history of an area. It provides opportunities for young people that both draw on and deepen their knowledge of, and connection to, their localities.

How Can Policy Push Right?

How can we ensure that policy works to retain the value of land based social enterprise? The Social Economy Alliance’s consultation paper suggests the introduction of a ‘blight tax’ to encourage landlords to bring empty land into productive use, as well as extending the Public Services Act to cover the management and disposal of assets to ensure local authorities operate for long term public benefit. The importance of recognising the diverse arrangements and methods through which land is managed by communities has also been stressed: mutual and common ownership models such as co-operatives and community land trusts are experimenting with organisational forms that lock social value into the management of environmental assets. Finally, as discussed at POPse back in 2011, concerns around the demands asset ownership places on communities, and unease surrounding the privatisation of formerly public assets, may be remedied by introducing a community right to manage, allowing land to remain valuable for all.

We would love to hear from anyone interested in social innovation, land based social enterprise or issues around the social economy – how do you think policy can work to cultivate both value and impact and keep our enterprises social?

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