Analysis: Oxfordshire - the UK's first 'Social Enterprise Place'

Social Enterprise UK has bestowed a unique accolade on Oxfordshire. What makes the county worthy of this badge of honour? Andy Hillier finds out

Witney: not yet a hotbed of social enterprise
Witney: not yet a hotbed of social enterprise

"I'm not aware of any here," says a receptionist in the tourist information centre in Witney, Oxfordshire, trying her best to be helpful. An elderly volunteer and her manager in the local Oxfam shop are equally perplexed by my request. "Try the local volunteer centre: they know lots of organisations locally," suggests the manager.

I'm in Oxfordshire on the search for social enterprises. In September, Oxfordshire became the first county in Britain to be awarded Social Enterprise Place status by Social Enterprise UK; a two-day event was duly held in Witney, the market town and parliamentary seat of the Prime Minister David Cameron, to raise awareness of the contribution they make in the county.

A month later, and I'm struggling to find any socially minded businesses among the upmarket independent shops and high-street chain stores. On Witney's high street, lots of businesses are displaying signs promoting their fair trade credentials, but there's not a single "We're a social enterprise" sticker in any of the windows.

A visit to Witney's volunteer centre does lead to the name of one local social enterprise: Synolos, a community interest company that provides training for young people, has set up a personalised gift printing shop just off the high street. Aside from this one organisation, however, Witney isn't quite the hotbed of social entrepreneurship I'd hoped for.

A trip to Oxford city centre finds rather more social enterprise activity. Crisis, the homelessness charity, has set up the Skylight Cafe on George Street, one of the busiest roads in the city, to help fund its work and provide training and work experience for people who have experienced homelessness.

Just outside the city centre, Yellow Submarine, a charity that supports people with learning difficulties, also runs a cafe that provides employment and training for its beneficiaries. The cafe opened last year and has received rave reviews in the local press and on the Trip Advisor website for the quality of its food.

Paul Stanton-Humphreys, manager of the cafe, says it is doing good business and the local community has been supportive. But does he view the cafe as part of a vibrant social enterprise movement sweeping across Oxfordshire? "I think if we were further into town, we'd feel part of the social enterprise movement, but we're a little bit out on a limb here," he admits.

And although the county as a whole has been awarded the social enterprise status, Stanton-Humphreys suspects that much of the social enterprise activity is located in Oxford itself. "If you're in town, you've got all the students and the tourists," he says.

Opposite the main train station in Oxford, another social enterprise has taken up residence. The Low Carbon Hub raises money through community share issues to invest in renewable energy projects in Oxfordshire. It hopes its latest share issue will raise £1.5m to place solar panels on schools and businesses in Oxfordshire.

Adriano Figueiredo, operations director of the Low Carbon Hub, says it feels part of a wider movement of local organisations that are putting the needs of people before profit. "We have community action groups in Oxfordshire that are creating all sorts of organisations: some of them are charities and others community benefit societies," he says. "People are getting more confident and developing their ideas."

What perhaps sets Oxfordshire apart from most other counties, says Figueiredo, is a relatively wealthy local population that increasingly wants to use its spending power for public good. He says: "People are increasingly asking what their money is doing. Is it funding oil companies and fracking companies, and can it be used for something positive?"

But does this perception really justify Oxfordshire gaining the label of the UK's first social enterprise county?

Grant Hayward, who runs his own consultancy and offers social enterprises assistance through the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership business support programme, believes the level of support the social enterprise community is receiving from a variety of organisations is what makes it different from many parts of the country. "The county council held a round table in the council chambers and the district council and the LEP are behind us," he says.

We have some good social enterprises in the area, but it's about how the county is working together to promote and support social enterprise

Grant Hayward, social enterprise consultant

He and a colleague are currently employed by the LEP to help support social enterprises and develop a network of social businesses in the area so they can share ideas. Social enterprises are one of the seven priorities of the LEP, he says.

An initiative called the Oxfordshire Social Entrepreneurship Partnership has also been set up by Oxford Brookes University, the University of Oxford and Student Hubs, a charity that helps students to become involved in social action projects. It has received £130,000 from the support organisation UnLtd to provide workshops, mentoring and cash awards to help social entrepreneurs, particularly from the student community, get their ideas off the ground. "We have some good social enterprises in the area, but it's about how the county is working together to promote and support social enterprise," says Hayward.

The OSEP has also begun a project to try to establish how many social enterprises there are in the county and the kinds of business they are involved in. Its initial findings show that they range from a music and beer festival to an outdoor nature play centre, and they are spread from Banbury in the north of the county down to Wallingford in the south.

There are also at least three social enterprises in the Witney area. But Hayward, who is compiling data for the OSEP, concedes that identifying social enterprises in the county is not entirely straightforward because many do not overtly display their social enterprise credentials. He says: "Part of the work we're doing is getting people to admit that they're social enterprises. They tend to be reluctant to do so in case people think they're unprofessional and they won't be taken seriously."

Nick Temple, director of business and enterprise at SEUK, says that the decision to make Oxfordshire Britain's first social enterprise county was taken after careful consideration by a judging panel. He points to the fact that some well-known social enterprises are based there, including Ethex, the ethical investment company, and the Phone Co-op.

Like Hayward, he says the social enterprise sector enjoys support from a range of organisations, including local universities, councils and the LEP. He says: "We're by no means saying that Oxfordshire has got everything sorted, but what we do think is there are some networks that are coming together.

"What's particularly interesting is the strength of the networks committing to do more."

Case study: Low Carbon Hub

Solar panels at Larkrise school

In December 2011, the Low Carbon Hub was set up to combine the knowledge of the low-carbon community groups that had been set up in the Oxford area after the 2007 floods and use it to tackle problems caused by climate change.

The hub comprises two separate legal entities: the Low Carbon Hub Industrial and Provident Society and the Low Carbon Hub Community Interest Company. The IPS develops renewable energy projects for business and the public sector, and the CIC uses the surplus generated to help communities to set up their own local renewable energy projects. Schemes funded so far include a solar panel installation at Crowley bus depot and a hydro-electricity scheme at Osney Lock.

Money to fund the projects is raised through community share issues. It is hoped that the latest scheme will raise £1.5m to fund 21 solar panel projects for schools and businesses in Oxfordshire. Under the terms of the deal, people can invest between £250 and £100,000 and will receive a projected annual return of 8.2 per cent.

Adriano Figueiredo, operations director of the Low Carbon Hub, says that its projects benefit local businesses and the community because they are able to get cheaper and greener energy; it also benefits investors - most of whom are local - because they're getting a higher rate of return than most traditional investments pay. He says: "We're trying to do something where everybody wins. A normal commercial developer would try to squeeze as much as possible out of the other side to make a profit."

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