Features
David Adams 1 Nov 2017 08:50am

Come gather round people

David Adams reports on the growing influence of local communities in ensuring they have the services they need, and profiles three community businesses that are run by the people, for the people

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Caption: Photography: Bristol Ferry Boats
Capitalism picks winners and losers, and can leave a nasty mess in places where society’s needs cannot be met in a profitable way. But there are other ways of doing business. The number of community-owned businesses appears to be rising, to meet a huge variety of requirements across the UK. There are now more than 7,000 community businesses in England alone and many more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, according to research commissioned in 2016 by Power to Change (PTC), a charity that supports such organisations through funding methods including loans and grants. It estimates that community businesses generate about £1bn of income each year, and that they employ over 36,000 people alongside 200,000 volunteers.

The businesses themselves include (for example) shops, pubs, cafés, community centres, swimming pools, cinemas, parks, environmental and nature conservation organisations, city farms, transport providers, health and social care services, local energy partnerships, and Community Land Trusts. Some may become important community hubs. The New Inn, in the Warwickshire village of Norton Lindsey, has been in the village since 1750 but was closed and put up for sale by its owners, Enterprise Inns, in 2016. With the help of a £100,000 loan and grant package provided by PTC and a £38,500 grant from Warwick District Council, 220 local people clubbed together to buy the pub.

It reopened in April 2017, with a café and shop attached. Many community businesses are successful thanks to the help of volunteers who have business experience and financial knowledge – such as ICAEW members. Marchington, a village in Staffordshire, lost its village shop in 2009, when it was no longer able to compete with large supermarkets in nearby towns of Uttoxeter, Stafford and Burton upon Trent.

Village resident and semi-retired accountant Reginald Wynniatt-Husey says he was at a party in the village on New Year’s Day 2010, when he found himself agreeing with a group of other villagers that someone should lead an effort to reopen the shop as a community business.

“There was a long silence, and I realised it was going to be me,” he recalls. But he stresses that he didn’t do it on his own: a large group of local people, including some with extensive business experience, have contributed to the ongoing success of the shop ever since.

They were also helped by the Plunkett Foundation, another organisation that has supported many community businesses across the country. The shop has now been trading for more than seven years, supported by about 200 members, who each own a single £20 share. It employs a manager who works 20 hours per week and five other paid members of staff, who work for 10 hours between them, alongside about 30 volunteers.

Wynniatt-Husey says the shop has been responsbile for bringing huge benefits to many people in the village, including older people who now enjoy playing a bigger role in community life, and young people who can gain valuable work experience in the shop. It works, he says, “because the village wants it”.

But even when community businesses have the potential to be financially viable, it can be extremely difficult to succeed – and this underlines the value ICAEW members can offer to them, says Peter Jenkins, director of finance and operations at PTC and an ICAEW Council member.

“Community businesses need people who can help them to write business plans and to develop their business model,” he explains. “Because these are businesses,
not charities. One reason we sometimes turn down grant or loan applications is that we can’t really see what the organisation’s financial situation is. It might be good, but it’s not been well-explained. That’s a real difference that ICAEW members could make if they get involved.”

BRISTOL FERRY BOATS


Bristol Ferry Boats was not always a community business. It was formed in the 1970s by a small local group to protect Bristol Harbour from redevelopment. The group also bought a small boat, Margaret, that had been used as a ferry in the Avon Gorge during the 1960s, in order to launch a new ferry service. In 1978 this organisation asked Ian Bungard, who operated the ferryboat, if he would like to buy Margaret. Over the next 24 years Ian and his wife Philippa gradually built a successful business, expanding the fleet to five boats and developing a year-round service reliable enough to be used by commuters. But in 2002 they sold 80% of the business to another family and retired to Spain.

When the business went into liquidation and the boats were put up for sale in 2012, former staff and other local people asked the Bungards if they could come back to save the business. But they couldn’t afford to simply buy the company back. Instead, about 40 people contributed to a successful bid to purchase the boats and the ferries had returned to service by the end of January 2013. “We decided to have a share offer and become a community benefit society,” says Bungard. “We wanted to raise £250,000. We decided that the largest amount anyone could pay in was £1,000 and the smallest £100. After that we ended up with about 875 shareholders – or members.”

The ferry service is now back in full operation. The organisation has around 35 paid employees, not all of whom are full-time. They are helped by 15 volunteers. In addition to the regular ferry service, the boats can be hired for events and the organisation runs education and outreach activities. Funding from PTC is helping to modernise the fleet, refurbishing some of the older boats and moving towards more use of electric-powered craft.

“It would be sustainable as a normal company, but this just feels a lot nicer,” says Bungard. “It feels more embedded in the community.”In addition they are providing a useful service to the people of Bristol, helping to reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the city throughout the year. “We do stick to a timetable, come what may,” says Bungard. “We’re there when we say we will be there.”

THE LINSKILL CENTRE


The Linskill Centre in North Tyneside was previously a local authority community centre, based in a former school. The local authority was considering closing the centre and selling the building for redevelopment, but in 2006, the Linskill and North Tyneside Community Development Trust, set up as a not-for-profit company in 2003, managed to complete a community asset transfer, securing the building on a 30-year lease at a peppercorn rent.

The centre is now home to several different community businesses and a wholly-owned trading subsidiary run by the Trust, which has become a charity. There are 20 permanent tenants hiring space in the centre, along with a community café, a nursery and 54 regular user groups, providing services based on community needs related to older people, employability, adult learning, health, and children and families.

Chief executive Simeon Ripley has been in his post since 2011, when public spending cuts were making it more difficult to obtain statutory funding and were also increasing the competition for grant funding.

His remit has been to keep the building in good repair and work towards achieving the Trust’s charitable objectives, while making it financially self-sustaining: 91% of the centre’s £1.3m turnover is now self-generated.
The centre has also expanded its operations as the local authority goes through the process of cutting more services. The centre has begun a pilot scheme that will create a hub and spoke model [a pooled investment structure] with two smaller community centres elsewhere in North Tyneside sharing some operational functions, including HR and booking systems.

“That has benefits in terms of economies of scale, but also in the fact that we’re saving local community centres,” says Ripley.He believes that the community business model helps the centre and its partners to adapt more quickly
and easily to changing local needs, and to ensure that the income it generates benefits the community.

“We like to work with local suppliers to ensure that a lot of what we spend is recycled into the local economy,” he says. “We can set up new projects quickly and we are able to determine where we invest and spend money ourselves.”

HOMEBAKED


Homebaked is a co-operative bakery, run by and for the north Liverpool community. It also runs a Community Land Trust (CLT).

Housed in a former bakery, Homebaked’s origins lie in the use of the site for an arts project during the 2010 Liverpool Biennale. Visitor enquiries about whether the old bakery would ever reopen led to local people forming the co-operative.
The organisation now employs 15 people, only three of whom work full-time, with others fitting their hours around childcare and other obligations. It is not yet a Living Wage employer, but all staff are paid above the minimum wage. They are also supported by 30 volunteers. Some staff and volunteers first walked through the door to attend one of the training courses in food preparation and baking offered free to those unable to pay.

The co-operative soon expanded to making its own bread, cakes and pies, and opening as a café every day. When it became clear that the pies it was producing offered a good profit margin, it started to develop a wholesale pie manufacturing business. Some pies are sold in the café, some are sold to local bars, restaurants and markets; and 700 are supplied to Liverpool Football Club on match days. This arrangement is just part of an important partnership with the club, which pays Homebaked on 14-day terms, and has allowed the organisation to use its function suites and kitchens for events.

In 2017 Homebaked entered the British Pie Awards, held in Melton Mowbray, and won five, including a gold medal for its Scouse Pie.
“The money from the pies enables us to subsidise the price of the bread and keep prices low in the café,” says Sally-Anne Watkiss, a former senior manager at
a FTSE 100 company and an experienced trustee and non-executive director,
who is now treasurer at Homebaked. “If we can get the space, equipment and capital there’s a market for production on a bigger scale and employing more people.”
Meanwhile, funding from PTC has enabled the CLT to refurbish the flat above the bakery. It now hopes to obtain the row of terraced houses and adjoining land next to the building through a stock transfer from the city council. It also wants other businesses to open nearby, including a post office and a credit union.
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