The Social Business

Author: Rob Greenland (page 2 of 39)

Two years without a car – in numbers

It’s been four years now since we made a resolution, in an icy car park of a budget Manchester hotel, to drive less.

Our new year's resolution in 2010

Our new year’s resolution in 2010

Eighteen months later, we’d sold our car – to see if we could live by hiring cars when we needed them, rather than owning one.

So how have we got on?  I’ve written a few times about it so won’t go over old ground, but now that we’ve had two full calendar years without owning a car, I thought it’d be interesting to compare 2012 to 2013.  What changed year on year? And why might that be?

As I’ve suggested before, it wasn’t really about the money.  It was mainly an environmental decision – an attempt to reduce our family’s carbon footprint.  But it was also about the money to a certain extent – particularly once we started using the car less, and saw it sat on the drive, slowly depreciating.  So how much has it cost to not own a car?

These are the headline figures.  In 2012, our  travel costs (as a family of 3) totalled £4661.  In 2013, that dropped to £3260 – a saving of £1401.  So that’s a drop year-on-year of 30%.

In both years, car costs (mainly car hire and fuel) made up the majority of our travel costs.  In 2012, we spent £2518 on cars and fuel – and in 2013 we spent £1809.  That’s a reduction of just over £700 – a 28% drop.

Other costs dropped year on year too.  In 2012 we spent £1331 on buses – and £912 in 2013 – a drop of £420 (or 32%).  Meanwhile we spent £335 less on trains (£205 compared to £540) whilst the only thing we spent more on in 2013 was cycling – up from £163 to £273.  Taxis made up the last bit of spending – £120 in 2012, and dropping by half to £57 in 2013.

So £1400 less spent in 2013 compared to 2012.  Why?  In short, we’ve adapted to not owning a car.  We were pretty quick to hire in those early months – particularly at weekends.  But slowly we changed how we got around.  My son’s birthday is a good example.  In the first year we hired a car to get to his party, carry his cake, bring his presents back.  In the second year we got the bus – and – now that most of his friends’ parents know we don’t have a car – we got a lift back.  £60 or so saved.  One car fewer on the road.

Overall, in 2012 we hired a car 20 times – for a total of 96 days – the equivalent of around 1 day in 4.  In 2013 we hired twelve times – for a total of 73 days – the equivalent of 1 day in 5.  So around a 20% drop year on year – and as this graph suggests – car use was nearly all about school holidays – plus weekends away.

Car hire costs and fuel - month by month in 2013

Car hire costs and fuel – month by month in 2013

The other main change year on year was switching more short journeys to my bike.  I bought a bike through the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative Cycle To Work scheme – which meant I paid around £25 a month during 2013 out of my gross pay for a  new bike.  My cycling really picked up when Leeds Empties moved to new offices in Cross Green in the summer – as the daily commute is a perfect length for cycling – 5 miles – half an hour.  So the amount I spent on bus fares reduced – as (to a certain extent) did my waistline.

My cycling - mostly to and from work - in 2013

My cycling – mostly to and from work – in 2013


I’ll write more over the next couple of weeks about how things have changed – and why we hope we’ll never go back to owning a car. But I suppose the main point I’d like to make is that I think what we’ve done (which I totally accept not everyone is in a position to do) wasn’t about a sudden, dramatic change.  It was about steady, sustained changes in behaviour – bit by bit changing how we got around, so that eventually we were in a position to try to live without owning a car.

Are Tory co-op plans “clearly a social good”?

I've been enjoying witnessing the Co-operative Labour movement making it abundantly clear that they are the real co-operators over the last couple of days, since the Tory announcement of their plans to encourage co-operatives and social enterprises to deliver public services.

I sent my previous piece on this via Twitter to Phillip Blond, the architect of the Tory plans.  Here's his reply:

Thanks – will read and study.  But surely just a negative reaction is wrong and a misaligned reflex.  This is a social good. 

This is a social good.  Blond clearly doesn't lack confidence. 

First things first, I haven't really read any of his work in any detail, or read the detail of the Tory co-op plans.  I will do as soon as I've moved house and unpacked the boxes in ten days time.  But I've kept an eye on what he's been saying in the newspapers and elsewhere.

Secondly, I think it is a fairly negative piece, so I take his point.  And that's a fault of mine – I try hard to write positive stories, and to be constructive, but I know that I can dwell on the negative sometimes.  But show me a writer who doesn't.  It's easy writing.  And there are downsides to be told in a social enterprise sector which sometimes only tells the good stories.  And I enjoy having a go at George Osborne. 

Yet I'm interested in Blond and his Red Tory ideas.   I'm also intrigued by his background.  Like me, he grew up in 1980s Liverpool and he says the impact of Thatcherism on the city has been a big influence on his life and work.  I'd say the same.   I can see how to this day Thatcher's policies – and the Militant response – did a lot of damage to my home city, and that legacy is still with us.

But I can't help but question the claim:  this is a social good.  Says who?  Who's to say that opening up the market for public services to social enterprises won't create a massive amount of damage to a fragile, skint society?  Or that the real impact of opening up to social enterprises will be to create a market in which the private sector will eventually dominate, thus (potentially) further alienating local communities?  Or that the undoubted social good that will come from the many great social enterprises that will deliver services will be counterbalanced by the regular bailouts of the ones that fail?

Let me finish on a positive.  I, like many other people, see the damage that poor public services do to individuals and communities.  I also believe that we need socially enterprising approaches to changing society – and some of those will come in the form of social enterprises.  So, I'm going to try hard to be constructive, as well as critical, in the debate about mutuality and public services.  I hope the people who seem to only see the upside of these proposals – who see them as a clear social good, might also peer over at the slightly less green grass on my side of the fence. 

Accountability and Impact

Two big words, which can often lose their power through over-use.  But being accountable for what your social business does is important.  Planning to have positive social impacts – then keeping an eye on them – then telling people about them – is vital too.

I'm hoping that once the Social Enterprise Mark settles into its stride that it will make a positive contribution to all of this.  I'm intrigued to find out more about their criteria around impact.  On their site it says:

Can you provide externally verified evidence that you are achieving your social or environmental aims?

In practice, social enterprises tend to do this by producing a social audit.  I've written before about how I think that we need fresh approaches to accounting for our impacts.  It's the second Social Impact Camp tomorrow (please come along if you're interested in all of this) – and I'm going to talk about the ideas I've had, and the work I've done, around trying to find ways to plan and record impacts that aren't as onerous as some social audit systems.  

At Voice a couple of weeks ago I asked a question in the plenary about whether the Panel felt that current social accounting systems were fit for purpose for the majority of small to medium sized social enterprises.  There were some interesting responses – with the consensus being that the current approaches have significant limitations.  Third Sector magazine have reported the discussion here.  

What will be the approach of the Social Enterprise Mark Company to this issue?  Will there be a working towards clause which allows businesses which are in the process of producing social accounts to get the Mark?  Or will it be a straight no to any social enterprise without externally verified evidence?  I'd be worried about my targets if the latter were the case.

Hopefully they can help to stimulate discussion and fresh approaches to this.  Much of the noise around the Mark so far has its roots, in my opinion, in the gut feeling that a lot of us have that profit distribution issues are of far less importance than the stuff around effectively planning for, and proving, your impacts.  It may help to move debate on if they start talking more about this in the months ahead.   

Osborne, Co-ops, Free Schools and Privatisation

George Osborne was on the Today programme this morning talking about Tory plans to open up the delivery of public services to social enterprises  - in particular, it seems, to co-operatives.  I assume Steve Hilton has decided that we're not awake enough to understand what a social enterprise is at 7.10am (he's probably not wrong), so he instructed him to just keep saying the word co-operative as often as he could in three minutes.  It is a lovely word after all.

I have written a lot about how public services need to improve.  I am also an enthusiast for socially enterprising approaches to delivering services.  But I'm suspicious of political enthusiasm for social enterprise.  In this case I'm picking on the Tories, because I find them (and Osborne in particular) unconvincing, but I'm pretty sceptical about Labour's motives in this field too.  

There's something of the four legs good, two legs bad dogma about politicians embracing social enterprise. They are so desperate (as they should be) to work out ways to make the UK a better place to live that they can end up believing that transferring services to social enterprises will magically make things better. They can definitely make a big difference if the social enterprise is good at what it does.  But they are not inherently better at doing things than other organisations or businesses.

I also have a question about the likely capacity for social enterprises to deliver services.  I know all the stats about how the sector is expanding, but I'm also aware that not everyone is cut out to be an active member of an employee-owned business, of the kind Osborne is proposing.  I'd be a rich man if I had a pound for every public sector employee who's told me that they're hatching plans to set up in business, to break free from the dead hand of bureacracy.  I'd have about £3 if I had a pound for every one that's done it.  Osborne said this morning that services will only be transferred to co-operatives if that's what staff want.  I think that, sadly perhaps, is a big if.  

So, if I'm right, and the public sector won't be transformed by hordes of public sector workers all desperate to set up co-operatives, how will we find different ways to deliver services?  Enter the private sector – particularly if the Tories get into power.  I suggest that politicians will keep talking about the opportunities for social enterprises, pointing us to that lovely social enterprise which collects bulky waste in Liverpool, whilst plenty of the opportunities will actually be gobbled up by the private sector, who will soon speak the language of social responsibility with more fluency than your average social entrepreneur.  

I do think that will happen more quickly if the Tories get in.  Read for example this account of a recent Politics Show about Michael Gove's Free School plans.  They interviewed Tory MP Tim Yeo, who made it clear that he thought that the Free School plans were flawed – not because schools should not be independent, but because the organisations that will run them won't be allowed to make a profit.  One rogue Tory does not a party make, but I very much doubt that Yeo is alone.  

Gove wouldn't dare allow idea of private-sector-run Free Schools to get in front of voters.  But two years into a Tory government, with restless right-wing backbenchers giving Cameron grief, you can well imagine that things might change.  Co-operatives'  real value to Osborne and his colleagues may be to clear the way for further privatisation of public services.  

Gordon – this is how to use YouTube to connect with voters

It's election time at Leeds University Union – one of the biggest social businesses in Leeds.

I think student unions are fascinating organisations.  Every year a group of seven or eight fresh-faced young people with various agendas and little experience of what those of us in work may call the real world take responsibility for  a multi-million pound, multi-stakeholder business.  And then twelve months later they all move on.  

The best student unions work hard to involve their members – and take democracy and accountability very seriously.  Take – for example – LUU's pioneering stance on phasing out bottled water sales in their shops.  

Let's hope our country's politicians find ways to connect with us once the election campaign begins.  I doubt they'll do anything quite as effective as this.

Putting your money where your mouth is

Here's an interview I did earlier this morning with Helen Seymour, from Headingley Development Trust.  

(Apologies for me muttering away in the background from time to time – I keep forgetting not to do that)

The Trust takes a socially enterprising approach to making Headingley a better place in which to live.  They recently supported a community buy-out of a local healthfood shop, and they are in the process of converting a former primary school into the Headingley Enterprise and Arts Centre.

I came across them through their relationship with Swillington Organic Farm.  Around 30 Trust members have committed to buy chicken and pork from the farm over a 6 month period – and have paid up front.  This gives Jo, the farmer, confidence – and cash – to rear the animals, in the knowledge that she has a market for them.

I really like this kind of business relationship.  I think we need more of this kind of thing.  Running a small business – particularly one with a lot of up-front costs and a perishable product – is an inheritently risky business.  It's good to find ways to share that risk a bit.  

If you'd like to know more you can get in touch with the Trust.

I think I’m washing my hair that day

I saw this billboard ad today on my way to a meeting:

Voluntary Organisations Market Place Event

I've got a bit of a thing about the overuse of the word "Event".  It usually means that the last thing the event in question will resemble is any kind of event.  It tends to be a word that is used when you're really not sure what the point of your event is.  So you call it an event.

I can be guilty of having a go at Local Authorities without real justification at times, but I have to say the inner taxpayer is feeling a bit annoyed that some of the cash earmarked for my part of Leeds has gone on such an unremarkable piece of marketing, if you can call it marketing.  Are local people really going to think "Hey, we're free on Saturday, let's go to that Voluntary Organisations Market Place Event."

I hope it's an eventful event.   I'm busy that day in any event, so I'll probably never find out.  

*Other vehicles to create social change are available

I've just put Frank to bed – far past his normal bedtime.  He came with me this evening to a talk by business author and social entrepreneur Robert Ashton.  I like Robert – he's a human-scale entrepreneur on a talk-circuit dominated by supposedly super-human entrepreneurs who most of us find it hard to relate to.  He talks a lot of sense.

He also had a picture of Frank in his presentation, much to his delight.  I'd seen Robert at Voice10, and I'd told him that I was bringing him along – and his photo turned up by the power of Facebook, to illustrate a point about what the world may look like in 2100.

Robert was talking about social enterprise as tomorrow's enterprise.  Someone asked a question at the end, which I've summarised here:

"When we tell people that we run a social enterprise, they don't understand.  They just say, "Why don't you just run your own business?"  We say it's because we care, but that doesn't seem like a good enough answer.  What's a snappy way to tell people why we run a social enterprise?"

I'm sure it's a question that many people ask – why don't you just set up your own business?  I think it's a valid one, and it's one that I ask people when they come to me, asking me to help them to set up a social enterprise.  It isn't for everyone.  It also isn't the only business model for creating social change.  

I imagine there are value judgments in the statement "it's because we care".  The assumption is that people who don't set up social enterprises don't care – they're just fat cats out to make a fast buck at the expense of everyone else.  Those people exist – but there are also plenty of people who run businesses which aren't structured as social enterprises (as we tend to define them in the UK) and who are doing good.  And I think there are plenty of others who are coming round to the idea that they could do more good in their business, but aren't wholly sure where to start.

This is one of the things that concerns me about the Social Enterprise Mark.  The world's in a right mess.  And the social enterprise movement seems to be setting itself up as THE vehicle to get us out of this mess.  The Mark will, in their words, represent businesses working for social and environmental aims.  

Except it doesn't.  It represents businesses working for social and environmental aims which spend at least half of their profits on socially beneficial purposes.  So there's a value judgment there about profit, which rules a lot of us out.  

I think in many cases profit-distribution and ownership are red herrings.  Often they make sod-all difference to how much change is created, and, at times, can get in the way.  At other times they magnify the change created by the business. So, for example, I will soon set up a business as a social enterprise – because I think that particular business will achieve more good structured that way.  But social enterprises aren't (as I think the questioner above is suggesting) inherently good – or necessarily better at doing good than other businesses.  

I'd be right behind a Social Business Mark which was awarded to businesses which have clear social aims, and which provide externally verified evidence of their impacts.  I'd even be happy if the businesses which had certain "social enterprise" structures got a further tick in the box.  But given that my interest is in social change, and is not ideologically driven by a dislike of profit distribution, I am finding it hard to get enthusiastic about the Social Enterprise Mark.

Cutting down on our car use

Along with attempts to cut down on energy use at home, we're also trying to use the car less. 

It's something we've looked at in the past – for a few years we were members of an informal car share club with a few friends, which worked well.  But when Francis was born we ended up buying a car, which, practically, we would have struggled without.  He's now 4 and the time has come to start weaning ourselves off the car again.

I looked at the log book and we've consistently done around 10,000 miles a year.  So we decided to set a target for this year of a 15% reduction in mileage – to 8500 miles.  That equates to (approximately) 700 miles a month – a reduction of about 150 miles a month.

That's certainly do-able.  We tend to go to see family in Burton or Liverpool once a month – and both journeys are over 100 miles as a round trip.  Both are easy on the train – and affordable if you book ahead.   Journeys to work and nursery – although 2 buses each way – are feasible too – and cut out around 10 miles a day.  

So how have we done?  Drum roll please – our total mileage for January was….  297 miles – beating the target by 403 miles.

A great start.  But let's not get too carried away.  The car was snowed in for the best part of two weeks.  But we have continued to get the bus most days – which says something about the importance of habit-forming – it takes time to change behaviour.  In this case the snow did us a favour.  

But I did go to Liverpool on the train this month – and we went to Cardiff on the train for Voice10 this weekend (although to be honest there's no way I'd have gone that far in the car anyway, so it doesn't really count).  

Thoughts so far?  Public transport is great when it works, but it's the unreliability that puts people off. Whilst at Voice I had a chat with Dai Powell from HCT Group – a social enterprise which runs buses in London (and community transport services in Leeds).  He said that people don't mind if the bus takes 20 minutes longer than the car – as long as they know that it will take 20 minutes longer – not 40 minutes longer because the first bus didn't come.  The trains have been faultless this month – but the buses have been hit and miss – which just isn't good enough (are you listening mega-profit-making-monopolists First Leeds?)

Clearly the cost puts people off too.  By booking ahead for Liverpool and Cardiff I imagine we paid around the same as we would have done for petrol – and had much more pleasant journeys.  But we needed to book ahead – realistically we would have bottled out and taken the car if we'd had to pay the walk-on fare. 

Similarly with the buses, there's no getting away from it, they're expensive, particularly if you travel as a family.  I think the only real way you can rationalise the cost of public transport longer-term is to get rid of your car.  So the £500 you spend on insurance, the £400 on the servicing etc – gets put into your "transport budget."  Suddenly £50 on the train, or a £10 taxi doesn't seem quite so bad.  

The other thing is that it's reminded me that if more people are going to embrace greener choices (and yes, I know the arguments about a small car being as fuel efficient as a bus with 9 people on it – the average in the UK ) there need to be benefits – and we also need to create benefits ourselves.  What I mean by this is that I think you need to adopt a slightly different lifestyle – but that can be a good thing.  

So, for example, if I go to Liverpool on the train I'm not as mobile whilst I'm there – and there are plenty of people to see.  But now I meet my nan or my grandad in town for lunch when we get there – which I think we all enjoy more than us going to see them at home.  It's a simple example of how some of the changes we'll need to make to our lives – away from real and perceived convenience – can turn out to be much better choices in lots of different and unexpected ways.  

Welshcakes and Circus

Just taking time out from Voice to gather a few thoughts, after a slightly surreal opening plenary.

The main event today was the launch of the Social Enterprise Mark, which was brought to us with much razmattaz, a social enterprise circus performance and a loud bang, which o felt intimately, having sat myself on the front row.

Let me say this: more publicity for social enterprise: great great great. And they’ve shown they can do razmattaz. But it’s about more than that. Now we can start the debates- as encouraged by the new SEC boss.

I’m keen to read the criteria. My take, so far, is that I need convincing on the structures questions. I’m also keen to hear more about how much social reporting, externally verified, people will have to do.

I’m sure they won’t have all the answers yet, of course they won’t. But its fair to start asking the questions now.

Sent from my iPhone

Rob Greenland

Social Business Consulting

07905 800 710

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