The Social Business

Category: Social Justice (page 1 of 19)

How can we stop so many people being killed and seriously injured on our roads?

Alongside my interest in transport,  I spend a fair bit of time campaigning on issues around road safety.

You could argue it’s pretty much a lifelong interest – given that I was knocked out of my pram and sent bouncing down the road by a driver who failed to stop at a pedestrian crossing when I was ten weeks old.

But that would be pushing it a little bit.   When I finally got my hands on the £100 of compensation that was put in Trust for me until I was 17, I spent it all on driving lessons.  I couldn’t wait to experience the freedom that a car can offer….

In reality I only really took an interest in these issues – alongside the broader transport and city design issues – when we got rid of our car in 2011.   Over a few months we went from being a family that mainly got around in a car, to a family that mostly got around Leeds on the bus, on foot or on bikes.

I cannot emphasise enough how changing how you get around your city also changes how you look at the place.   I’d always been pretty sympathetic to arguments about the negative impacts of cars, particularly from an environmental point of view.  But like most people I mostly got around in a car.   Suddenly,  without one on the drive, I was seeing Leeds from a whole different perspective.

I’ve written before – and will no doubt write again – about transport – and all the reasons we should be investing in high quality public transport, whilst also making cycling and walking a much more attractive option for short journeys.  But today I want to focus on another aspect of a car-dominated city – the impact on vulnerable road users – people who walk and cycle around their city.

Someone asked me the other day if I’m “angry” about transport in Leeds – as they thought my #LeedsTransport tweets suggested that I was.  In fact I’m not – I’d say I’m exasperated and impatient for change, but mostly not angry.  I’ve certainly (in the main) learnt not to tweet whilst angry at least.

But when it comes to the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads, I’m angry.   When I consider how the justice system tends to deal with cases where people have been killed by drivers, I’m angry.  And when I see much of what’s being done in the name of reducing the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads, yes, I’m pretty angry.

It’s hard to summarise such a complex issue.  But in short, I think we have come to accept violence (I choose that word carefully) on our roads  in a way that we would never accept such regular violence in other parts of our lives.

Recently shared statistics suggest that 305 people were killed or seriously injured on Leeds roads in 2017.  That’s down on the previous year, but still significantly above the “target” figure.

I won’t pretend to have considered all the statistics in detail, but another fact stands out – pedestrians and cyclists accounted for 47% of those killed or seriously injured, even though they only account for 13% of journeys made.

And what are we doing to change things?  Again, it’s complex, and again, as much as I try to keep on top of this, it’s something I’m doing in my spare time and as an “amateur”.  But you can read  a summary of what’s being done in the Safer Roads Action Plan at Item 7 here.

I think there’s some good stuff in there – in particular I think the work to redesign streets  (including a focus on “district centres” where there are plenty of people walking, shopping etc) sounds good.

But, as always, there appears to be far too much emphasis on what you might call “educating vulnerable road users to stay safe”, rather than dealing with the source of much of the danger – tackling driver behaviour through enforcement activity.

It’s something that I’ve tried to raise before, particularly with the local Police and Crime Commissioner.   And it’s been raised before by the Council’s Scrutiny Panel – with a report expressing concern about the lack of enforcement activity – caused by a lack of police resources.

My concern is that things will continue to get worse.  We appear to be in a bit of loop – with the Council and their partners focusing on what they do (particularly around road re-design and education) whilst pointing out, year after year, that the lack of police enforcement is an issue.  

It will be interesting to see if this gets raised again at this week’s Scrutiny Panel.

As I make clear, I’m no expert on this.  But day after day, walking and cycling around Leeds, I am put at unnecessary risk by a significant minority of drivers – and I’ve had enough of it.  Too many streets are designed in ways that facilitate the movement of vehicles, at the expense of people walking and cycling.  Whilst the stats I’ve pointed to above confirm the particular impact unsafe streets have on vulnerable road users.

I don’t know what to do – but I think we need some radical action.  Maybe it’s time to look at initiatives like Vision Zero – and start thinking about how we can work towards a target of no-one being seriously injured or killed on our streets.  I can see why such a target might sound ridiculous.  But I think we’ve gone too far the other way – as a society we seem to accept that “accidents” happen.   I think we can do better than that.

Leeds needs to decide what kind of city it wants to be

Leeds has had better weeks. Thursday saw the rejection by Government of plans for a Trolleybus – 25 years since more ambitious plans for a tram system were first developed. And on the same day, the World Health Organisation confirmed what we knew already – we have a serious air pollution problem.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know transport is probably the thing I talk about most. It shouldn’t be this way. Getting around your city should be one of those things that are incidental to far more important things that you get up to in life. But whether you’re sat in a daily traffic jam, making the best of mediocre infrastructure on your bike, or stuck behind a load of cars on the bus, getting around Leeds feels like a big deal. That’s not good enough for a city with the ambitions that our city clearly has.

I’m interested in transport for all sorts of reasons. That interest grew in 2011 when we got rid of our car – and as a family we started getting around more by bus, on foot and on bikes. What I’d been aware of before suddenly hit me in the face – Leeds, Motorway City of the 70s, is built around the car – and it works for no-one – including people who drive around our city.

I’m interested in this for a number of reasons. The first is environmental – as a city we need to reduce our carbon emissions – and we need to sort out a pretty serious issue that we’ve got with air pollution. It’s no coincidence that a city with poor public transport options – we’re the biggest city in Europe without a mass transit system – also has serious congestion, and poor air quality.

I’m also interested from a social justice angle. Car-centric cities don’t work for people in poverty. Many people in poverty in our city don’t have access to a car – and, crucially, their public transport options are often limited too. That has an impact on quality of life – and, importantly, on the ability people have to access jobs.

I’m interested because I want Leeds to be a child-friendly city. Cities with decent public transport are better for kids – and can help them to become more independent by making it easier for them to travel around their city on their own. And it’s pretty clear cities with polluted air aren’t so good for kids.

And I’m interested because I love cities. At least I love them when they work well. When you can live well. When streets feel like places to linger in, not places to escape from as quickly as you can, because the air is thick with diesel fumes and you can’t hear yourself think over the traffic noise.

Leeds has to decide what kind of city it wants to be. And that goes beyond whether we get a tram-train or a Monorail powered by waste energy from the new incinerator. We’ve got to think bigger than that. How do we build a city that works for people? A place that is good to walk around. Streets that are places where you want to hang around. Decent public spaces.

We need to be bold. It won’t surprise you to learn that I think we need to rethink the city and design out the dominance of the car. It’s clearly not working. We need to make active travel more attractive – so short journeys, so often taken in a car – feel like they can realistically, enjoyably, be walked or cycled. That means taking roadspace away from cars, and building high quality, protected bike lanes. Because everyone benefits when more people cycle – not just the “cyclists”.

Am I hopeful? I have mixed feelings. It can feel like a cheap shot to keep banging on about Leeds still being the Motorway City of The Seventies at heart. But anyone who knows this city well will recognise how that culture still lives on. I’ve had a fair few interactions with the Highways Department (the name of the department tells you all you need to know) – and I can’t tell you how difficult it is to try to influence something as simple as the wait-time for pedestrians at a pelican crossing, or to ask for a pedestrian crossing to access one of our main civic spaces. If we can’t change things like that, what hope have we got of making the big changes that we need?

But there is hope. The Council recently produced a document looking at a future transport strategy, which also looked more broadly at changes that could be made to the city’s streets. Some of it is really good – and there are ambitions to make changes that will result in a more people-friendly city centre – like the closure of City Square to most traffic.

So as we chew over what comes next for the city, let’s not forget that it’s not just about trams, light rail, or electric buses. It’s about the kind of city we want to be. As Janette Sadik Khan suggests, we need to fight for our city’s streets – and for the future of our city as a great place to live.

What can Leeds learn from a New York City streetfight?

I’ve just finished reading Streetfight – Handbook For An Urban Revolution – by ex New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  It documents her seven years in the role – making massive changes to the city’s streets, including creating over 400 miles of new bike lanes and more than sixty new public spaces.

I’m fascinated by how we can make our cities better places to live.  In particular, I’m interested in how we all get around our cities – and the problems many of us face in places where motor traffic dominates.  My city, Leeds, regularly grinds to a halt – and has some of the worst air pollution in the country.  And it’s certainly not a city where cycling feels like an easy, or particularly safe, option.

Whilst every city is different – and will have its own challenges, there’s loads we can learn from places that have begun to deal with the issues many of our cities face – primarily how to enable lots of people to get from A to B – and how to make our streets places where people want to linger, chat, and, of course, spend the money that keeps the city going.

There’s so much in the book – and it’ll take me a while to digest it all – but I’ve tried to pick out a few key themes – in particular ones that I think are relevant to the city I live in.

It’s not just about bike lanes – it’s about the kind of city we want

When I first heard about Janette Sadik-Khan’s work (via Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat’s Twitter feed) I focussed immediately on the work she’d done to create hundreds of miles more bike lanes in New York.   As someone who makes most journeys in my city by bike, I liked the sound of that – particularly as I imagine New York to be a city where the automobile rules.

And that’s still the bit I’m most excited about, as I can see how everyone in our city could benefit if 10-20% of us regularly got around by bike.  But in the book there’s as much talk about creating public space as there is about creating safer routes for people on bikes.  Under her leadership the city created over sixty new public spaces – taking space from cars and providing people with the opportunity to sit, eat, think, drink, spend.

Creating more people-friendly cities isn’t just about how we get around – it’s also about creating better public spaces.  What Brent Toderian would call sticky streets – places where people want to hang out.  Places that are safer.  Places where people linger – and spend money.

The benefits of acting quickly and cheaply

It feels like change can take forever.  Just look at Leeds.  There’s been talk of a tram system in the city ever since I came here in 1991.  And  changes to the City Centre Loop (such as closing City Square to traffic) may have been announced last year, but won’t happen for a good few years yet.

Why do things have to take so long?  Budgets, consultations, planning – all important stuff.  But what might we gain if just tried a few things out?  A common theme in the book is of New York’s Transportation Department trying things out quickly and cheaply – a lick of paint to designate a new public space – filled with a couple of hundred $10 chairs from a hardware store.

Could we do more of this here?  Yes, consultation matters.  Yes, we need to spend public money wisely.  But what if we just tried things a few things out?  Put a few cheap chairs outside the Town Hall and watched what happened?  Or created a temporary bike lane, with temporary barriers, on a few city centre streets in August for a few weeks?  Trying things out – and helping people to visualise how our city could be different – might just work.

2016 will be the year of the bikelash in Leeds

The clue’s in the name of the book.  It’s not “How we found a comfortable middle ground that everyone in the city was happy with”.  It was a fight – and it still is.  There was lots of opposition – to creating new bike lanes, to taking parking spaces away, to creating new mini public squares.

Congestion will get worse.  Pollution will get worse.  Shops will lose trade.  Pretty much all the arguments you’re hearing in London right now, as they expand their cycle superhighway network.  And, arguments that you’re hearing in my city – and which will increase in volume once the City Connect route opens later this year.

I don’t know whether City Connect will be a success – I trust it will be – and I hope it will be.  But one thing’s for sure – within days of it opening there will be countless people on social media and in the local media telling us how much of a waste of money it is.  And you won’t be able to move for tweeted photos of empty bike lanes, next to gridlocked traffic.  Those of us who think that City Connect has to be the first part of a city-wide network of protected bike lanes need to be ready to fight – and to make the case that better designed streets – and more space for cycling and walking – will benefit all of us, however we get around.

More analysis, fewer anecdotes.

Sadik-Khan’s boss was Mayor Bloomberg – a man known for many things, including the phrase: In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.

One of the things I found most interesting in the book was the emphasis on data – in particular to help them to analyse the impact of the changes they were implementing.  It would seem – and others have said the same – that our methods for measuring what happens on our streets is often inadequate.  Mostly, what is counted is traffic – the number of cars.  And even when we do collect other data – collision data for example – the data isn’t rich enough for us to analyse (or we just don’t bother analysing it).

In New York they put a lot of effort into coming up with new ways to “measure their streets”.  So anecdotes (“the traffic has slowed; more people are riding bikes on pavements; shops have lost trade”) were replaced with data.  And, (unsurprisingly to those of us who follow this stuff) the data mainly told good stories.  Fewer road casualties.  More trade for local businesses. Improved traffic flow.  Data that built the case for the next plaza, the next bike lane – and crucially – got local people  requesting infrastructure improvements in their neighbourhoods.  There’s lots of good work happening on data in Leeds – by people like Leeds Data Mill and ODI Leeds.  What data could we collect and analyse to make our city streets work better?

So they’re my immediate thoughts.  Like a lot of people who care about this kind of thing, I get a bit worn down at times, constantly having the same arguments, regularly being told “that’s all very well, but it really isn’t possible.”  But having read this book, I feel like I’m ready to fight for better streets again.

 

 

Leeds – a good place to build your own home?

Housing minister Mark Prisk was in Leeds today to announce a series of measures to encourage more people to build their own homes.

He was visiting LILAC – an inspiring development of strawbale housing in Bramley, West Leeds – which today welcomed its first residents.

You’ll know we’ve been working hard on Leeds Empties for the past year or so. Ultimately, our interest is in ensuring that more Leeds people have access to decent housing. Sorting out empty homes has a big part to play in making that happen. But it clearly doesn’t offer the whole answer. We need to build more homes.

But I can’t be the only person who sees volume house builders as part of the problem. We’re told we need to Get Britain Building. We need to relax planning regulations. We need to make it easier for people to buy new-build homes. Just let the big boys get on with the job – they’ll sort it out.

Really? Now I’m not going to suggest that volume house builders don’t have a role to play – they clearly do. But I’d worry if we were going to rely on them alone to sort out our shortage of decent housing. Don’t their developments, often at scale, often on greenbelt land – keep running into local opposition? Do their estates of identikit housing inspire? Do they help us to make a significant dent in our CO2 emissions – 25% of which come from running our homes? And, perhaps most crucially, are many of their homes affordable, by even the most loose of definitions of affordable?

A self-build home in the Field of Dreams at Findhorn, Scotland

This is why I’m interested in how we can encourage more self-build. In the UK around 10% of homes are self-build. Across Europe, the figure is around 50%. In Germany and Austria it’s more like 80% (all stats from this programme). So it’s clear there’s scope for more of us to get involved in building our own homes.

What might be the benefits of more of us building our own homes? I’m no expert on this – but from what I’ve seen with my own eyes – in places like this and this – self-built homes can, first and foremost, be beautiful, inspiring places to live. That’s not too much to ask is it?

But they can be much more than that too. Designed well, they can offer opportunities for significant reductions in the environmental impact of our homes – both in the construction and running of the homes. And, when people decide to build together, there can be benefits with regards to a greater sense of community – LILAC, for example, is based on co-housing principles and the development includes a shared house. Might co-housing – much of it self-built – help tackle what’s been called Britain’s loneliness epidemic?

And then there’s affordability. We live in a pretty modest 3 bed semi in Leeds. About £1 in every £3 we earn goes to pay a mortgage on a house that I like, but I’d struggle to say I love. And we, of course, are amongst the luckier ones – the generation below us has got little chance of being able to afford a decent home.

Strawbale Cottage in Howden, East Yorkshire

Now there are bigger things at play here – but self-build housing surely has to help. LILAC, for example, has affordability at the heart of its approach and its ownership model. And, particularly where people group together to buy materials and do some work themselves etc you can imagine there are opportunities to do things more cheaply than house builders who are driven primarily by profit.

So how do we make sure that LILAC isn’t the last inspiring self-build community in Leeds? A starting point could be a meeting that’s being organised by Leeds City Council in May. Hopefully that’ll bring a number of people together who are interested in building their own homes. I’ll be going – it might take us four or five years before we’re ready – but I’m keen to start exploring whether our next home could be one we build ourselves – with others.

Getting together in May might also start us thinking about what might need to happen in Leeds to make it easier for people to build their own homes. Clearly access to land is key. Getting your head round planning regulations, I presume, can be a barrier. It’ll be interesting to see what role the Council – and others – could play in this – for example by identifying appropriate parcels of land – perhaps smaller pieces of land that commercial developers aren’t so interested in – and offering them on good terms to self-builders.

Personally, I’d like to see us trial an approach whereby volume house builders are offered planning permission in return for selling – at a fair price – a percentage of their land to self-builders. Might that be a good way to get more decent, green, affordable homes for Leeds people?

We need to make sure LILAC is a starting point to inspire others to do something similar elsewhere in our city, not somewhere we all visit, dreaming of what could be.

And finally, a self-build house in Findhorn built from an old whisky mash tun

A day with Bristol Together and Triodos

It’s been a busy few days. After Monday morning’s inspiring session with Muhammad Yunus I spent the afternoon with 150 others at the Empty Homes Conference.

The highlight for me was listening to Dan from Revolutionary Arts – the man behind the Empty Shops Network who brings a refreshing perspective to the use of empty space. His talk challenged me to think about empty shops – up to now we’ve steered clear of shops and stuck to homes. And I think that focus is still correct – but we should at least look into ways to make the most of empty flats above shops. Which, in some cases, may mean looking at new uses for the shops themselves too. There are people who know much more about this stuff in Leeds than we do – so we’ll be contacting them soon.

From London, on to Bristol for an event at Triodos Bank. The event at Triodos was run by Bristol Together – a social enterprise that’s been up and running for about a year now – and recently won a start-up of the year award. They provide work for ex-offenders by buying, renovating and then selling empty homes.

One of the intriguing things about them is that they’ve managed to raise £1.6 million through a bond issue organised by Triodos. The bond offers a return of 3% to investors – and is repayable in full after 5 years. Investors can also benefit from Community Investment Tax Relief – which turns a 3% return into an 8% return.

There’s a mix of investors in Bristol Together – from institutional investors such as the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation through to so-called High Net Worth Individuals. A couple of the individual investors were there, and spoke about their experience. They were clearly pretty engaged investors – both were on the Board of Bristol Together – and one commented that of all his investments, the Bristol Together Board is the most impressive he’s part of. It made me think I need to widen my network to include a few more thoughtful High Net Worth Individuals…

The £1.6m investment gives Bristol Together the cashflow to act as a cash buyer in the housing market – buying houses at auction and through Estate Agents. They’re also keen to explore a closer relationship with the Council which might see them find a way to buy unwanted properties from them. Clearly part of the return for investors comes from this ability to move quickly to secure a sale.

They reckon around 90% of the work to renovate a home is done by ex-offenders – with usually around 5 or 6 people working on each house. Obviously more difficult tasks – tanking a cellar, sorting out the gas supply– will be done by specialist traders. But much of the rest is done by the people for whom Bristol Together exists.

Each renovation is co-ordinated by a Project Manager. As you can imagine, the Project Manager is key to keeping the job on track and on budget. A big part of their role is juggling the desire to be supportive to people finding their way back into the world of work with the need to get the job done as planned. Not an easy task, but it sounds like they’ve recruited well.

Bristol Together are an ambitious bunch. They plan to scale up their work in Bristol whilst also expanding into other areas. Next up is the Midlands – with a Midlands Together business currently in development. A number of potential partners for the new venture were there – and it sounds like that’ll be something that develops over the coming months – accompanied by a £5 million bond organised by Triodos.

My main reason for making the trip down was to see if there was potential to develop something similar in Leeds. In the short term, I’d think it’s unlikely that Yorkshire Together will happen – as the next step is to develop in the Midlands. But it certainly felt like something we should explore in the medium term – particularly as there appears to be a strong commitment to working to developing each Together with local partners. We’ll be watching the development of Bristol Together and Midlands Together closely, and we’ll obviously do all we can to help them to identify appropriate local partners if they do decide to work in Yorkshire.

Then there’s the investment angle too. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I’m sceptical about much of what’s happening in the world of social investment. But today it made sense to me. Engaged investors, who have a good relationship with a social business that has a business model which can generate financial returns alongside social returns. The financial return (3% plus tax relief) seemed fair enough to me. And Triodos – well known as a values-driven organisation – felt like a Bank you could do business with.

So could we explore something similar in Leeds? Perhaps with Triodos, or perhaps with another intermediary? What do the investment opportunities look like in Leeds? Could we develop a bond which allowed social ventures in Leeds to act as cash buyers, to do up homes in ways that brought lots of extra social benefits, to ex-offenders, long-term unemployed people or whoever? And could we find a few High Net Worth Individuals of our own?

If you’ve got any thoughts on how to take things further, it’d be great to hear from you.

Social innovation Grameen style: “Look at ice-cream. The cones are edible.”

I’ve been in Nottingham this morning for a breakfast event hosted by Capital One with Professor Muhammad Yunus, the man often described as the Godfather of Social Business.

Prof. Yunus is best known for Grameen – who in turn are best known for offering banking services to poor women in Bangladesh. He’s in the UK for a couple of days – with Friends of Grameen President Liam Black by his side – to talk with a wide range of people – including the UK Government – about social business and, more specifically, the problems the bank is currently facing thanks to the unwelcome intervention of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Prof. Yunus made it clear, with the answer to Liam’s first question at this morning’s event that he didn’t want to “waste time” talking about Grameen’s current problems. Instead he wanted to focus on social business – so that’s what I’ll do here too.

It’s easy to feel a bit starstruck in the presence of someone who has achieved as much as Muhammad Yunus. He’s an interesting mix of zen-like calm and steely determination. This isn’t an ivory-towers academic who’s dipped his toe naively into the world of business. I get the impression you wouldn’t mess with Professor Yunus. But his generosity, warmth and humility are immediately apparent too.

Liam introduced Prof. Yunus as a man who’s “best known for asking questions that turn things on their head.” This for me was the theme of the talk, and something that in my own little way I try to bring to my work too. Many of his questions, of course, concern poverty and its causes. “Poverty isn’t created by poor people. It’s externally imposed. It comes from outside.” A statement such as this challenges – and immediate invites questions. Who/what is imposing poverty? How do we respond?

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

His social business journey began in 1976, as an academic who, in his words, was “growing tired of teaching theory whilst people died outside.” He looked around in Bangladesh – and saw big problems with high-interest moneylending. So he decided to be begin lending money to the poor – the poor who most people believed (still believe?) aren’t worthy of banking services.

From those humble beginnings, Grameen now runs more than 50 social businesses – many in collaboration with multinationals – Danone, Veolia, Pfizer, Tesco and more – in a range of markets from microcredit to mobile phones to yoghurt. One of the things I find most fascinating about the Grameen approach is that none of the businesses distribute profit – yet many are run in collaboration with some of the world’s most successful profit-generating corporations.

That challenges me in a number of ways – with regards to my attitude towards who our business collaborates with – and some of my thinking about profit. Yet I’m not saying that Professor Yunus’s attitude towards taking dividends from social business (he suggests business is either selfish – profit maximising – or selfless) isn’t problematic either. But it’s a useful challenge….

He talked quite a bit about Grameen’s collaboration with Danone – a relationship I know a fair bit about having spent a couple of days with Danone at an Innovation Lab in Paris a few years ago. Together, Grameen and Danone sell high-nutrition yoghurt – with the double benefits of “health through food” (Danone’s mission) and plenty of jobs for people selling the yoghurts.

He told a story of product development. Execs arrived from Paris with sample products – in, of course, plastic pots. Cue one of Professor Yunus’s questions.

“Why is the pot plastic?”
“Because that’s what we sell yoghurt in around the world.”
“We haven’t set up a social business so that we can litter Bangladesh with plastic pots.”

They went away, and came back three months later – pleased with themselves of course – with a biodegradable, corn-starch pot. Professor Yunus looked at it, and asked another series of killer questions:

“Is it edible?” No? Why is not edible? People are paying good money for this product – why can’t we produce a pot they can eat? We eat ice-cream cones – so why not yoghurt pots?”

That’s innovation in action, right there…..

But is he – and Grameen – being used by multinationals hungry for good CSR stories and access to bottom-of-the-pyramid markets? Markets that are easily accessed by partnering with a social business with the incredible reach that Grameen has in countries like Bangladesh? Yunus responds to this question – which is asked all the time – primarily by journalists – with mock surprise. “They’re using me are they? Well, I never knew. I thought I was using them….” He’s delighted to be “used” – if being used means that a social business is developed that helps people out of poverty. But as I suggested earlier, Yunus is no naive Professor – I doubt you’d get far if your aim in collaborating with Grameen was purely selfish.

Too soon it was all over, and I had to dash to get my train to London, to catch the second half of the Empty Homes Conference and for a series of meetings to help us to develop Leeds Empties – an enterprising, collaborative approach to tackling the waste of empty homes so that more people have somewhere decent to call home. I travel down inspired by Professor Yunus’s indefatigability (to borrow a mis-used term). Fifty social businesses later, he’s still hungry for the next start-up. These final words stick with me:

“Social business is problem-solving business….. Every time I see a social problem, I set up a business to solve it.”

Inspiring stuff for all of us trying to make a difference through social business.

Leeds Empties – we’re ready for investment

I do most of my work these days through Social Business Brokers, a social enterprise I set up a couple of years ago with Gill Coupland to bring people together to find enterprising solutions to some of our big social problems.

We came up with a new way of working this year.  We developed a five-stage process for making progress on whatever social issue we were focusing on:

  1. Look for clues – researching, understanding the issue we want to solve
  2. Create a buzz – get people engaged through using traditional and social media
  3. Get together – gather together a wide range of people at a Call To Action
  4. Build momentum – take ideas explored at the Call To Action and develop them
  5. Make things happen -­‐ achieve sustainable social change through supporting social ventures to grow

The first issue we decided to focus on was empty homes in Leeds.  We’d seen George Clarke’s programme on TV talking about empty homes being a scandal.  And, like most of you, we’d wandered around our city’s streets, spotting empty homes and wondering how on earth they could stay empty for so long.  Who owned them?  Why were they empty?  How would we go about getting them back into use?

So we looked for clues and we created a fair bit of buzz – including this full page feature in the Yorkshire Post.  And George Clarke got in touch to say he’d love to come to our Call To Action.  That, as you can imagine, created a lot more buzz – and before we knew it 100 people had signed up to come to our Call To Action.

And what a day it was.  We’d done all of this for free – and countless other people had chipped in with their free time, their venue, their contacts and lots more.  100 people  – including property professionals, senior Council staff (including the Chief Exec), social entrepreneurs, campaigners and people looking to buy their first home – came together for a day to think creatively about how to get more of our empty properties back into use as homes.  It was a brilliant day, which also got tonnes of media coverage, including this in the YEP and this on BBC Look North (my TV debut).

And if you’re still not convinced, have a look at what people said about the Call To Action on Twitter

That was in May.  What happened next? The truth is that whilst I can now confidently point you to our “five stage process” (outlined above) we were, in reality, making things up as we went along.  We knew we needed to do something to help turn the ideas that were explored at the Call To Action into real, live, interventions which would help bring hundreds more empties back into use.  We just didn’t know what that something would look like.

But that’s OK.  If we knew, we – or someone else – would have already done it.  The whole point of our approach – which is essentially about bringing other people together who know far more about an issue than we do, and who are better placed than we are to solve it – is that we don’t know the answers yet.  But together we can find them….

So we’ve spent the last six months talking to people, listening to people, continuing to look for clues and to put some meat on the bare bones of the ideas that were explored on that sunny day at Greenhouse in May.

What we’ve come up with is a plan for prototyping Leeds Empties.  We want to learn by doing – and we want to learn quickly.  We’ve identified ten areas of work that we believe – having talked to a lot of people – could make a real dent in the numbers of empty homes in Leeds.  Here they are:

  1. Communicating with the right people
  2. Empty Homes Doctor – intensive one to one support for empty home owners
  3. Development of business models and investment vehicles
  4. Private sector engagement – Civic Enterprise
  5. Understand and review current Leeds City Council empty homes processes
  6. Opportunities for green retrofit of empty homes
  7. Support for new and existing self-help schemes and social ventures
  8. Identify and secure funding and investment for Leeds empty homes
  9. Identify work, volunteering, training and apprenticeship opportunities
  10. Explore how to get involved in Leeds City Council’s locality based approach

It’s probably hard for you to grasp exactly what we mean by all of this.  I’ll try to explain it more over the coming weeks.  But, in essence, we want to get stuck into the detail of each of these areas of work over the next six months, so we can work out what might work best in Leeds.  

And then, six months down the line, we believe we will have a much better sense of what Leeds Empties can be.  Which is when we can go for some serious investment – which we believe will pay huge dividends – more decent homes, more jobs and training opportunities, fewer communities blighted by derelict houses, and much, much more.

For now, we need just over £50,000 to prototype Leeds Empties for six months.  So this is an open call to anyone who can help us to make Leeds Empties work.  We’d love to hear from social investors, philanthropists, Trusts, and whoever else who could invest in our prototype.  Please get in touch if you’re interested. We’d love to tell you more.

Prison reform – Work Programme mistakes all over again?

In yesterday’s reshuffle one move caught my eye – Chris Grayling moving from the DWP to the Ministry of Justice.

I’ve written a number of times about the problems (to put it mildly) with the implementation of the Work Programme – in particular the problems it has caused for third sector organisations that have formed part of the supply chain that’s headed by Prime Providers like A4E.

Earlier this year I also wrote about how we weren’t sure whether we should get involved in a Payment By Results pilot at Leeds Prison. My concern was – and still is – that social enterprises will end up in a similar position to many of those that got involved in the Work Programme. Having been used as bid-candy, those further down the supply chain end up doing a load of work which destroys their cash-flow, and, in some cases, sees them go under.

So will Chris Grayling arrive at his new desk with a sincere aim of sharing what he’s learnt at the DWP about the difficulties of the Payment By Results model?   Yes, probably – although what he thinks he’s learnt is likely to be a whole lot different from what many observers have been learning.

Time and again, when challenged on the impact that the Prime Provider contracts were having on people further down the supply chain, he failed to acknowledge that there was an issue. Either it was too soon to tell, or it was an operational matter on which he wasn’t able to comment. Or, I’d suggest, like most politicians, most of the time, he’d made up his mind a while ago and wasn’t going to let facts get in the way of ideology.

Personally, I’m not wholly against the idea of Payment By Results. For me, it’s all about the implementation. Trying it out, learning from it, then doing it better. What concerns me here is that the timetable for Payment By Results in Prisons – Ken Clarke had talked about it being rolled out by 2015 – doesn’t give any real time to understand what works and what doesn’t work.

Take, for example, what appears to be happening at my local prison, Leeds Prison.  Apparently, all of the shortlisted Prime Providers pulled out of the original Payment By Results procurement process because they couldn’t make the figures stack up.  I’ve heard that the Ministry of Justice will outline what it will do next at Leeds in the next three or four weeks.  This surely demonstrates that getting this right will take time – and suggests to me that a 2015 deadline will just see lots of people making the same mistakes, all at the same time.

And, as always, we’ll end up paying.  More taxes to pay for a prison system that still doesn’t work.  Not to mention all the social costs of many lost opportunities to make a lasting difference to prisoners’ chances of not re-offending.

Part of a thriving ecosystem? Or extinct by the summer?

There’s much talk at the moment in the world of social business, innovation and investment about the need to create a thriving ecosystem. I understand that to mean an environment within which the social ventures that we want to encourage are best able to start up and grow.

All sounds good. I assume the kind of thing we mean when we talk about an ecosystem includes effective, responsive business support, appropriate finance and, in general terms, a supportive environment within which to do social business.

Our business, Social Business Brokers CIC, supports people to set up and run social ventures. We do that, primarily, by working with people to explore ideas, get set up and keep on going. Traditionally third parties (such as Local Authorities) have paid us to offer free support to whoever they want to encourage.

We think most of the time we do good stuff. But in the last twelve months we found ourselves becoming increasingly restless. We were conscious that it was becoming ever-more difficult to do good quality work. Existing contracts demanded more outcomes for less money. New bits of work were increasingly elusive. And whilst we did good stuff, and got lots of nice feedback from people we worked with, we weren’t satisfied. We knew, deep down, that we weren’t having as much positive impact as we could be.

So we came up with a bit of a plan. We decided to try out a few different ways of supporting social ventures. The big idea was to focus on a series of specific social issues. Previously we’d worked with just about anyone and everyone who had a social enterprise idea. We thought focusing a bit more – specialising perhaps – might help.

So we identified a few issues:

that we felt could benefit from some innovative, socially enterprising thinking
that we knew a bit about/could quickly learn about
that we thought had potential for developing sustainable social ventures
that we cared about
that other people seemed to care about too

We started with empty homes. We’d read about the 15,000 empty homes in Leeds. We’d seen George Clarke on the telly. We knew 27,000 people were on Council waiting lists. So after a bit of thinking we came up with our Call To Action – an attempt to bring together all the people in Leeds – innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, funders, door-openers, encouragers – who could help us to make a significant dent in the number of long-term empty homes in Leeds.

The response was overwhelming. I can honestly say that in all the time I’ve supported social businesses I’ve never experienced such a positive response. People cared about the issue – but they also seemed to like the approach. And it’s created a real buzz around empty homes that, we reckon, could help us to stimulate approaches which will see hundreds more Leeds homes brought back into use.

There’s lots more to do. We need to make sure we get all the right people at the Call To Action – and we need to do work to make sure that Leeds is the best city in the country for doing up empty homes. And then we need to encourage sustainable social ventures to develop.

The aim is that we’ll get paid for doing this kind of work – identifying a social issue – understanding it – stimulating interest in it – bringing the right people together – and then making things happen. But this is where it starts to get complicated…..

Because the big question is: who will pay? Our theory is that we identify a key stakeholder or stakeholders for each social issue – people who want to see significant progress on solving that particular social problem. We ask them to pay us for doing the kind of creative stuff that we’ve outlined above. We think that theory is a good one. But up to now it’s just a theory. Because no-one’s stumped up any cash yet.

Things might change in the next couple of weeks. We’re looking for sponsors for the Call To Action. We’re charging a small fee for people to come along (next time we’ll charge more). And we’re talking to some people who might put in some cash. But I wouldn’t bet my house on us being successful – because, as you all know, money is very tight.

Money is tight, and there also appears to be a reluctance for anyone to pay for business support at the moment. Conversations with people who know more about the world of social investment than I do suggest that it’s hard to work out who will pay for the “social venture intermediaries” – the people like us. Investors would prefer most of their cash to go to the people they want to invest in. New ventures aren’t always the best source of income either. And whilst we’re open to the idea of taking equity stakes in new businesses we support, that feels like a long-term income source. Or maybe a form of payment on the never-never.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone owes me a living. But I also think that what we do matters. In setting up our social enterprise we’ve each taken a fair amount of personal financial risk -primarily doing lots of speculative work in the hope of future success. The hundreds of hours we’ve put into empty homes so far have all been unpaid. That was our decision, and we’re fine with that – but you can only do that for so long.

We’ve given ourselves till the summer. I think there’s every chance that our Empty Homes Call To Action will help us work out how to make a big difference supporting social ventures – whilst also making money. But I also think there’s a good chance that no-one will think that this particular Leeds-based social venture intermediary is worth putting significant money into. We’ll see.

Tackling prisoner re-offending – should we get involved?

I do most of my work these days through Social Business Brokers, the social enterprise I set up in 2010 with fellow Leeds social entrepreneur Gill Coupland, founder of Angels Community Enterprises.

We’ve decided to change how we work this year to focus on particular social issues.  Issues that we think matter.  Issues where we think there’s a need for some socially enterprising thinking, and where we think there are opportunities to develop social ventures.

The main issue we’ve focused on so far is empty homes – based around a Call To Action that we’ve organised for the middle of May.  But, on a smaller scale, we’re looking at other issues too.  One we looked at today was prisoner re-offending.

We decided to look into this issue after reading some stats about the re-offending rates at our local prison.  More than 60% of prisoners who are released this month will be back inside within 12 months.  That’s an incredible loss of human potential, not to mention a massive cost to us all with regards to the cost of imprisonment and the personal and financial costs of crime.

We also heard about a Payment By Results trial at Leeds prison – so we decided that we’d see if we could get a few people together to explore the issue in a bit more detail.

Eight of us got together for a couple of hours this morning.  The format was simple:

  • What do we know and believe about prisoner re-offending?  What do we need to find out?
  • What do we think needs to change?
  • What opportunities exist/can we create to change things?
  • What are we going to do next – and can we do that together?

The discussion was really interesting.  We had a mix of people whose day job was to do with prisoners or offenders – whilst the majority of people were interested in this issue – and keen to work out if there were ways that they and their organisations could make a difference.

It’s hard to summarise the conversation, but it’s fair to say that there was a good amount of discussion about the need – in an ideal world – to tackle causes as well as symptoms.  We talked about some interesting initiatives we’d heard about – particularly around employment and skills – but also questioned whether isolated initiatives can make much difference – without a more profound rethinking of the prison system, and its balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

We then discussed what we might do.  Some ideas emerged – again a fair few with an employment and skills focus.  I’m sure plenty more would have been developed if we’d had more than the couple of hours that we’d given ourselves.

I left not knowing whether this was an issue that we would work more on.  Let me explain my thinking.  I think this is an issue where there is a massive need for social innovation.  And, on the face of it, there appear to be opportunities emerging to do things a bit differently.  Leeds Prison has shortlisted half-a-dozen providers (one of whom joined us today) for the Payment By Results pilot.  Other prisons are thinking of different ways to reduce re-offending.

Yet there’s a part of my that wonders how much of a difference we could make.  Politically, it feels like a tough one.  The political narrative – informed by much popular opinion – is that the role of prison is to punish.  And of course that’s an important role.  But that narrative doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative thinking around how we make sure that people don’t just end up offending again when they come out of prison.

Similarly, I worry about how effective initiatives like the Payment By Results pilot at Leeds will be.  It’s telling that all of the six shortlisted providers at Leeds are Work Programme providers.  The very same Work Programme that I – and countless others – have criticised for sidelining smaller organisations like many of the social enterprises that we work with.  Experience suggests that I shouldn’t expect the Ministry of Justice to learn much from the Department of Work and Pensions – particularly when the DWP doesn’t seem to think there’s much wrong with the Work Programme.

There’s also the issue about how hard it can be to engage with a big beast of an organisation like a prison.  I’ve rung the Prison – to speak to a specific, named person, four times in the past week.  I still haven’t been able to talk to – or even leave a message for – the person who, Leeds Chamber would have you believe – is running a groundbreaking programme of engagement with the Leeds business community.  We waste a lot of time working at the pace of people in the more bureaucratic wings of the public sector.  To be honest we can’t continue to waste that amount of time chasing opportunities.

So I’m a bit torn.  Do we engage with one or more of the shortlisted Prime Providers at Leeds – to see how we can connect them with innovative local organisations?  Or do we take the judgment that the kind of people we work with are better left out of a Payment By Results pilot which – you’d fear – would put them under severe financial pressure as risk is passed down the supply chain?

We’ll see how things go over the next few weeks.  Maybe our meeting – and the discussions opening up as a result – will see us getting more involved in this issue. Maybe I’ll finally chat with the guy at the Prison.   Or maybe we’ll decide it’s one issue where we can’t make much difference.

But if that’s the case, isn’t that a wasted opportunity – and shouldn’t people like those who joined us today have a decent opportunity to change the prison system for good?

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