Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Social Enterprise Zones

It's all to the good that David Cameron believes that the most urgent political priority for the government should be to help people whose living standards have not been rising over the past ten years. His new idea for tackling poverty is to support social enterprises with tax relief.

It can be quite difficult to check the detail of Conservative Party proposals, which often use words like 'social enterprise' or 'multiple deprivation' without any clear understanding of what the words actually mean. But if what he means is learning from the Social Enterprise Zone which has been running in East London since 1998, as evaluated here, then it would certainly be a step forward from the drivel that Iain Duncan Smith came up with.

There are a number of reasons for scepticism, though. Cameron writes that "there are parts of affluent Oxford, for instance, which rival parts of Liverpool in terms of deprivation. We need a more fine-grained approach to tackle multiple deprivation at the micro-level." But the Tories who run Oxfordshire County Council explicitly oppose this, and when asked to support new funding for social enterprises and sign up to reducing inequality, started laughing and explained that they thought that inequality was not a problem, and was indeed rather a good thing. If Cameron is looking for a fight with the Tory membership, this would be a good issue to do it on, because Tory councils are merrily cutting back on supporting for the voluntary sector and diverting funding away from more deprived areas.

Secondly, Cameron's idea seems to be for social enterprises to replace what he calls 'the large and lumbering agencies of government'. What is interesting about Newham's Social Enterprise Zone and comes through loud and clear every time that people in more deprived areas are asked about what they think should happen is that there is no support at all for cutting back on state-provided services. Instead, what social enterprises, at their best, do is complement public services, and help to make public services more effective and more responsive to local need. Making social enterprises more effective and maximising their potential to help people in poverty also involves dedicating more resources to the public sector, so that the public sector can learn from the community and meet the needs which social enterprises help to identify.

Social enterprises can do a lot to help offer better services for people living in deprived areas. But they are not a quick fix, not a replacement for the public sector, and it would be nice if rather than warm words about them, Mr Cameron's colleagues actually supported them.

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