Newsmaker: Bland gets interesting - Jonathan Bland chief executive, Social Enterprise Coalition

Mathew Little

- Courted by Government and opposition over public service delivery.

Jonathan Bland is beginning to be showered with the kind of political attention usually reserved for ageing Australian media moguls or the Saudi Arabian defence procurement minister.

A fortnight ago Bland, as de facto representative of the UK's social enterprise movement, hosted a meeting between David Cameron and 30 social enterprise chief executives. The new Tory leader then sent 13 members of his shadow cabinet on the road to see at first hand how enterprises are delivering public services.

Expect the blandishments to flow again at today's annual Social Enterprise Coalition conference when Alun Michael, minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, gets up to speak. Labour has extolled the sector as the 'third leg' of public service reform, creating a new legal form - the community interest company - specifically for social enterprises.

Bland says he used to have to bang on the door of government departments - now they come to him.

He may be flattered, but he isn't swooning. "There is still a huge lack of awareness and understanding about social enterprise," he says. "And it's from the very top - the Prime Minister and the Chancellor."

Bland's task of promoting social enterprise isn't made easier by the fact that it comes in a huge variety of forms. Beneath the tag of 'businesses trading for a social or environmental purpose' lie myriad different organisations, from the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership to charities' trading arms, worker co-operatives and creches. Some reinvest profits in the business and others issue shares and pay a dividend to investors.

Bland sees diversity as a strength, not a source of confusion. "The conventional capitalist model of business is that you are there to maximise profit and shareholder value," he says. "Social enterprise is about taking the energy and the values of a business model and saying 'we can do other things with it'. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, you have to adopt different legal and organisational forms. I think a broad approach to that is a positive thing."

But the movement's refusal to sit in easily understandable categories may cause it to be ignored. Despite Labour's touting of social enterprise as the next big thing in public service reform, Bland warns that, unless it receives more support, the private sector will be the exclusive beneficiary.

"Those civil servants who are writing the policies need to understand that they've got some tools in the social enterprise box," he says. "A lot of them don't."

In the NHS, for example, instead of outsourcing GP surgeries to US corporations, managers could look to the model of the Big Life Company in Manchester, a social enterprise that runs a range of health services on behalf of a primary care trust. Ministers keen to improve out-of-hours healthcare might visit West Yorkshire, where a community-owned business - Local Care Direct - employs 400 people. In Surrey, 800 occupational speech therapists are forming a social enterprise that will contract with the local primary care trust. Bland wants an NHS equivalent of the Housing Corporation that will invest in such enterprises. "Because they are trading for a social purpose, these enterprises have a competitive edge that an ordinary business doesn't have," he says.

Last year, the Small Business Service found the social enterprise sector was three times as big as previously thought, but it is still dwarfed by its equivalents in countries such as Spain, where Bland spent five years working for a federation of co-operatives. Bland cautions that social enterprise is not a panacea for all social ills, but he adds: "There are no no-go areas."

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