Wales has a deep tradition for social initiatives, from developing the early model for the NHS to today’s social enterprise industry. But can community participation be the driver of local economic change?
Porth in the Rhondda Valley – once the beating heart of the south Wales mining community – is now the place where carpet tiles from London’s investment banks come to get a second life.
Social enterprise Greenstream has, since 2008, been diverting some of the 90% of carpet tiles that previously ended up in landfill, sorting them and selling them on to households, charities and housing associations. In 2013 the company diverted the equivalent of more than 12 football pitches worth of carpet to be re-used in homes and offices.
One of Greenstream’s neighbours – based near the village of Ynyshir – is Too Good to Waste, which collects and re-sells household items and provides ‘ethical’ house clearances.
Both organisations offer much-needed training and employment in areas that has yet to recover from the closure of the coal pits that provided their economic lifeblood.
But Ellen Petts, founder of Greenstream, believes more could be done to join the dots between her work, the aims of government, and the broader local economy.
She sees huge potential to build a re-use sector in the south Wales valleys. But, while she works closely with local housing organisations, she has struggled to build a partnership with the local public sector, and would like to see a more joined-up approach.
‘It’s about matching the activity of community organisations with the reach of public procurement’, she says.
Building social-public partnerships
Wales is known for its community spirit and strong social networks. From local funding of libraries and miners’ institutes to the early NHS model in Tredegar and today’s social enterprise sector, the desire to participate in community life is a strong feature in Welsh culture. One of the founders of the co-operative movement Robert Owen was born in mid-Wales and the co-operative tradition he founded has enriched and stabilised areas of the country for many years.
Figures from the Wales Co-operative Centre show that the tradition lives on. It estimates the value of the social economy in Wales at £1.7bn, including Wales Water, Welsh housing associations and social enterprises.
The Welsh government is conscious of its rich heritage of community action and has drawn on it in recent years, in particular through the launch of the Welsh Co-operative and Mutuals Commission. Its report, published in 2014, set out 25 recommendations for making co-operatives the norm rather than the exception, including new finance mechanisms for the development of mutuals and co-ops and efforts to ensure procurement benefits social enterprises and mutuals. The future role of co-operatives in social care provision was acknowledged in the Social Services and Wellbeing Act.
But those working in social economy say that progress on some of the recommendations has stalled and would like more conscious efforts to make the social sector more than a sum of its parts.
During last month’s New Start/NEF event on alternative local economic thinking for the region, delegates called for a more community-centric vision for the local economy, building on its heritage of social action to bring prosperity and hope to areas that are struggling to find a new economic narrative. Delegates called for stronger social-public partnerships in areas such as social care and for a stronger focus on the ‘foundational economy’ in which most people find work.
Clare Goff is former Editor of New Start magazine