Call to create social enterprise businesses to fill services gap

Villagers and shareholders mark re-opening of Lowther Arms
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Communities re-building post-pandemic should consider filling gaps in provision with a social enterprise business.

That is the message from a local authority-led support partnership that has just celebrated assisting its latest community project to go live – the successful re-opening of a closed pub.

Social enterprises create employment by selling goods and services in the open market, and reinvesting profits back into their business or the local community.

The Lowther Arms in Mawbray, Cumbria, is now trading again after a long running campaign by locals to re-open it. Villagers created a Community Benefit Society to buy and save the pub. The Lowther Arms Community Project (LACP) is now the landlord and leases the pub to tenants.

The project has more than 300 shareholders from the local community, and beyond.

The LACP received support from several organisations including the Plunkett Foundation, Key Fund, Co-operatives UK, CAMRA, Allerdale Borough Council, Cumbria Community Foundation, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce and Cumbria Social Enterprise Partnership (CSEP).

They were guided through the final stages to re-opening by a business advisor from CSEP. Now the partnership wants to make more people aware of help what is on offer for communities to re-start services lost before or during the pandemic, or launch new ones.

Guy Huxtable, of Wingspan Consulting, which works with CSEP, helped the Lowther Arms team to plan its timetable of work for re-opening but says CSEP can also be helpful for those not even sure whether their social enterprise idea is a workable solution.

He said: “Often, it is people who have worked in the third or public sector who can see a gap in provision. Social enterprise is becoming more known as a concept and a way that these important services can be provided.

“The range of businesses we have worked with is incredibly diverse, from pubs to a community energy company, children and young people’s charity, female-focused gym to mental health service provision.”

Social enterprise businesses can tackle social problems, improve people’s life chances, provide training and employment opportunities, support communities or help the environment.

In Cumbria, there are now around 1,100 registered social enterprises, many of which have relied on CSEP to help them start trading. The partnership is funded by Cumbria County Council via grants to support business advice and networking activities.

Martin Allman, social enterprise manager with Cumbria County Council, said that social enterprises not only brought services to communities that could not be provided by private companies or the public sector, but they also offered a different route to employment.

He said: “Often the conversation we have with people is about considering whether social enterprise, working for yourself or the community, is a viable way into work.

“In the west of the county, and with funding through the Transforming West Cumbria Programme, we have a pre-start programme which is basically an arm around the shoulder just exploring what the options are. And throughout the county we can help support people considering setting up their own community enterprise.

“The Government has also launched the UK Community Ownership Fund, specifically designed to save community assets such as pubs, post offices and sporting clubs at risk of closure. Our support programmes can help with the application process.”

In Mawbray, Vivienne Coleman, company secretary of LACP, said external support had been a vital component in realising the villagers’ dream of once again having their own local.

She said: “Having that independent experience to guide us and someone who understands how social enterprise companies operate was an incredible benefit.

Mawbay residents Molly Tunstall, left, and Hannah Byers cut the opening ribbon

“We are blessed in the village with a lot of talented people who were prepared to take on the work, but what we didn’t necessarily have was strategic project management skills. There are regulations to be met and investors have to be satisfied, so having consultancy support to plan through all that made the process smoother.”

Cllr David Southward, Cumbria County Council’s cabinet member for economic development, said: “Through CSEP, we’re delighted to support communities to launch viable social enterprise businesses where a need has been identified.

“The community of Mawbray has been incredibly passionate in bringing a valuable asset back to life and should be congratulated on that achievement.”