News and Comment

Big Society and small business

Friday 24 September 2010


Where should the state end and the voluntary sector begin?

This is one of the central questions of the Big Society. Supporters argue that the state has smothered grassroots activism in a way that is not only costly, but has actively undermined the ideas and energy of local people to make their lives better. Sceptics, on the other hand, warn that a rolling back of the state will do much greater damage still, and risks deepening our social problems and increasing inequality.

Role of the private sector

But where does the private sector sit in all this? For the most part, it gets a walk-on part as either heroic sponsor – the corporate philanthropist that steps in to fund community projects – or moustache-twirling fat cat, reaping the rewards of a policy that invites privatisation by the backdoor. Either way, ‘business’ usually implies ‘big business’, but this risks marginalising the vital role that small businesses have to play in achieving the aims of the Big Society reform agenda.

We hear the advocates of the Big Society urging us to think of all those supermarkets and other high street names that could act as new community hubs. Such venues offer a ready-made focal point for communities, these commentators say, where shoppers could find out about local projects and volunteering opportunities, and where space could be found for community groups, activities, and perhaps even social enterprises. These are already functions that some supermarkets encourage and are keen to develop – after all, it makes good business sense to be the hub of your community.

Certainly we should look to big private companies, particularly major retailers, to do their bit. They have the money, presence and influence to generate considerable social benefit if engaged in the right way.

But our notions of the private sector’s role in fostering and sustaining a genuine Big Society culture cannot begin and end with them. Does it not sit uneasily with the messages about the local, distinctive and bottom-up, to locate the Big Society in these identikit temples of near-monopolistic consumerism? Might a Big Society supported by – and supportive of – local small businesses, not also be stronger, more energised, and with a broader, more sustainable support base?

Starting and sustaining a small business isn’t usually about making a fast buck – it can mean long hours for little financial reward, at least initially and sometimes permanently. The commitment and vision these people show to their businesses is the same sort of commitment and vision we are being asked to show as citizens in our communities. Those businesses can help us to be active in our towns and neighbourhoods because they also want to see their localities succeed, and they understand where we’re coming from. Big Society supporters need to realise that social and economic entrepreneurship go hand in hand, and that the conditions and culture that support the one can support the other.

A personal example

To take the example of my own hometown of Wellington, near Telford: each year, some friends and I organise a series of free events in the town centre. The first, in June, is a historically-inspired fayre, with jesters, morris dancers, folk bands and craft and food stalls. Later in the summer, different local musicians perform every Saturday as part of a ‘Sounds in the Square’ season. Finally, over the August bank holiday, we hold a ‘Big Barbecue’ event in a field near the town, to raise money for charity.

Market at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

Market at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

Pitching in

In the case of each of these events, local small businesses play a crucial role. They buy cheap advertising space in our promotional leaflet, which pays for 10,000 copies to be printed; they make donations of about £30 a head to fund the performances we arrange (with further funding – it should be said – coming from our local town council); and the business people themselves chip in with practical help, from helping us put up bunting to donating competition prizes.

Free music event in Wellington

Free music event in Wellington

Just as importantly, they tell their customers about what we’re doing, they enthuse them and they encourage us. Their involvement makes it feel like a real community effort. If we don’t have enough chairs for our brass band, Percy at the bookshop will lend us a couple; if we need more costumes for our procession, Joy and Margaret at the needlework shop offer to make us some more. And if our other funding sources ever dried up, I’m confident they would all rally round to keep our events going, because they believe they’re ‘good for the town’ – socially, culturally and commercially.

Costumes at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

Costumes at Wellington Midsummer Fayre

It’s important to point out that ours is not a picturesque town of galleries and organic delicatessens – this is a struggling market town on the fringes of a larger urban area, hammered by out-of-town shopping, increasingly suburban in feel and at risk of losing its identity. That’s partly why we organise these events in the first place.

The point is that it’s the dozens of small businesses we look to for support, rather than one big charitable or corporate supporter – that might be easier and require less door-knocking, but it would also feel less authentic and less ‘owned’ by the town. The businesses we approach are often run by proprietors short on time and increasingly short on profits, but most appreciate our efforts and reciprocate either in cash or in kind – and certainly more than they would if these events were being organised by a paid council officer.

People will make the Big Society

In essence, the Big Society will require people to be interested, to care, and to make an effort. That’s a more inviting prospect if you live in a thriving, interesting place, and thriving, interesting small businesses are a key component in creating those places. As the debates about Big Society rage, we need to ensure that it isn’t just about the duet (or duel) between the public and voluntary sectors, and that when the private sector does come into view, it isn’t just the big players who get all the attention. It would be a missed opportunity – not to mention a terrible shame – if ‘Big Society’ just became another aisle at Tesco.

Planning for the Big Society

OPM is supporting local authorities to think through the role they envisage for the Big Society in their areas, and plans to hold a roundtable event with leaders of small and big businesses later in the year. To register your interest please contact Sarah Holloway on or 0207 239 7817.