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Real life, real incomes - creating social enterprises

Over the last few years, Transition Initiatives have been looking at how to get economically real. This is key in terms of formulating a response not only to climate change and the need to stop using oil, but equally to the financial crisis and the need to be able to articulate and show what an economic alternative would look like.

Economy for the 99% flyerA part of this is the need to make Transition practise real-life and more than just a nice hobby, while continuing in jobs which may pay the bills but exploit the planet, ourselves or simply fail to challenge the business as usual model of continual economic growth which is exhausting the earth.

And then a few years ago when business-as-usual fell apart and it became apparent that the old model couldn't continue - at least in the post-industrial economies of Western Europe and the US - Transition needed to respond, to show its relevance and develop solutions for (and by) those facing the crisis, and REconomy was born. The idea was for established Transitioners to set up social enterprises that would provide skills and services to a local sustainable economy, contribute to energy descent and provide incomes for those who were breaking out of the old economy and trying to establish the new.

Last month Transition Dartmouth Park came together with other Transition Initiatives in Camden, North London and other local environmental groups, trades unions, the Alliance for Jobs and Climate, local councillors and Camden Green Party, to organise a one day event: 'Shift: An Economy for the 99%'. The aim was to discuss solutions and emerge with tools for how we could fight austerity on a local level in a way that helped to develop a new green, local economy.

In Camden several Transition Initiatives are already running or setting up social enterprises but this event was really the first time we had come together to discuss how our initiatives could work more strategically and also support each other to enable more enterprises to develop. We organised a workshop on the day, on 'setting up sustainable local livelihoods', and in preparation I had a conversation with Frances Northrop of Transition Town Totnes, who has worked for the REconomy project for two years.

TT Totnes entrepeneur forumFrances explained to me that in Totnes they had mapped areas of the local economy to see where money was spent, where the gaps where, and how Transition could usefully contribute. One example was food spend - of £30 million spent annually on food in Totnes, £21 million was spent in just two supermarkets, despite a plethora of successful independent food outlets. In response they looked at the gaps - what food could be grown locally, which shops and restaurants would stock local food, and aimed to set up social enterprises to change the situation. They have since moved onto looking at local services which are being cut by the council, in particular adult social care, and whether the obvious need could be filled by holistic healthcare paid for with personal allowances. They have also set up a social enterprise hub to bring people together, share skills and find people locally who can offer fee business advice and other support.

Frances also told me that energy has been an area where some communities have had great success - one example being Bath and West community energy company who had a very successful community share issue, providing funds to invest in local renewables schemes. This is the kind of strategic work that can not only provide incomes but also help people who are dealing with income cuts and rising fuel prices out of fuel poverty.

Kentish Town veg boxOur 'sustainable local livelihoods' workshop in Camden was a great chance to share information and discuss what other Transition Initiatives had done, and also to hear what was already happening locally. We heard from Tom Allen, of Transition Kentish Town, who have recently started a Veg Box scheme. The scheme is based on an already existing successful model developed by 'Growing Communities' in Hackney, and is designed to be replicated in other areas. In Kentish Town there are already 50 members and they are able to pay a coordinator one day a week, with the aim of eventually employing several others.

We also heard about several social enterprises set up by members of Transition Belsize: Debbie Bourne runs two - 'Eco clubs', an after school club for children in six schools, and a garden design enterprise, incorporating food growing and habitat design. And although Patrick Farkas who runs the Belsize Draught Busting project couldn't be there, he told me that this established social enterprise was in the process of moving from council funded workshops for local residents, and being paid to draught-bust schools in the area, towards a model of being privately paid for the service. This raised an important issue - as council funding dries up, it is crucial to have a business model that is able to move towards being independent of grants.

Restart project flyerUgo Vallauri spoke about an exciting new social enterprise - The Restart project. Restart has created a network of people across London who repair things, at a series of regular social events in a variety of locations, from libraries to pubs. They are in the process of getting 'innovation funding', and aim not only to bring back incomes to repairers who have been forced out by rising rents and competition from cheap technology, but also to change the way people think about buying new products, and help those who just cannot afford to either get things fixed or replace it with anything new. They are looking at the possibility of using pop-up shops and market stalls in the future, and like many Transition projects hope to incorporate skills-sharing into their model.

Transition Dartmouth Park (where I'm from) isn't at social enterprise stage yet - having only been going for just over a year, we're more focused on creating projects and outreach work. However, our new energy group is already making some steps in this direction: they are working with the council on a funding bid which would see the retro-fitting of several 'exemplar' homes in the area, and an event for home-owners which would showcase what can be done to improve home energy efficiency. They have persuaded the council to build pay for event organisers into the bid - an important example of not only seeing ourselves as committed volunteers who want to make things happen, but also as people who are working hard and need incomes!

We wanted to use our workshop to discuss ideas of how to work together more strategically and go beyond standalone social enterprises, and came up with a series of practical ideas which we hope to take forward. Among these are an idea to set up a Camden enterprise website which could put people in contact with those who could offer business advice, web design skills, and others who have been through the process already. As a result of the workshop we were offered the chance to use a local church hall as a real life business hub (and their garden to grow food!) - space and land are key, particularly in areas where rent is expensive and space scarce. We also discussed working with the council on looking at the potential for home-retrofitting in the area, and on their procurement policies - for example, on repair of technical equipment, and on maintenance of gardens on council estates (as these are areas where we already have skills).

The event was a first step, and a discussion we are continuing, and perhaps most importantly a chance to work with other organisations in Camden who want to explore sustainable ways out of austerity, and not just a return to a failed economic model.

Thanks to Frances, Paul, Debbie, Tom, Ugo, Patrick, Ed, Anna and Pamela for discussions which contributed to the workshop and this article.

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