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West Midlands Mayor: My pledge to help those who work to help others

In-depth | Published:

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street talks about his commitment to help those who work to help others.

Challenge Academy at Baggeridge

Over the last few months, the fabric of our nation has been put to the test by the coronavirus outbreak.

The tragedy of so many lives lost, concerns over money and business and the frustrations of months in lockdown have placed a huge social burden on our communities.

At times, the response to this has been inspirational. In years to come, I suspect we will look back on the UK’s lockdown experience and reflect how it often brought out the best in our society – from the weekly NHS tributes and volunteers helping the vulnerable and isolated, to little gestures of encouragement between neighbours and the rainbow artwork that has brightened our streets.

Now, as the UK emerges from hibernation to face the economic challenges and opportunities brought by lockdown, I believe we will need that sense of community cohesion more than ever. And that means a crucial yet often unrecognised part of local life, the ‘social economy’, will play a vital role in our recovery.

From my experience running John Lewis, which has been described as Britain’s biggest social enterprise, I understand how the social economy helps people to live more fulfilling and happier lives.

The Black Country is blessed with a huge network of social enterprises, from Walsall’s Vine Trust which helps local youngsters access education and skills to improve their life chances, to Next Step in Wolverhampton, which provides personal and friendly support for disabled adults.

As our communities deal with the fall-out of coronavirus, this tapestry of social enterprises, charities and community organisations will help form the social safety net needed to support those impacted by the tough times that will no doubt come. Put simply, these enterprises, groups, organisations and charities put the needs of the community before profit.

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We can help them continue to play this vital role in two ways: by ensuring they retain a vital tax break that attracts investment, and by giving them a seat at the table as we plan the region’s recovery.

Since 2014, this often-overlooked part of our economy has been able to benefit from Social Investment Tax Relief (SITR), which helps unlock private investment and direct it into disadvantaged communities. There is now some question mark over the future of SITR, which is causing considerable concern within the sector.

Introduced by the coalition government, SITR has proven effective in attracting investment into some of the most challenged areas of the West Midlands, making a real difference to communities.

It has already leveraged at least £1million in private investment to help fund local services through 11 social enterprises, from the Jericho Foundation in Birmingham, which uses upcycling to give people new skills and opportunities, to Challenge Academy in Sedgley, which provides outdoor training and activities.

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Challenge Academy

It would be a great shame if one of the unexpected effects of the Covid 19 outbreak was that this vital tax relief comes to an end next April, simply because its importance has been overshadowed by the pandemic.

That’s why I am supporting Big Society Capital’s campaign to extend SITR by an additional two years, to April 2023, ensuring it can continue to play a part in channelling investment into the social economy of the West Midlands.

As we plot our region’s recovery, we must also include representatives of the social economy in the discussion. Last year, as West Midlands Mayor, I launched the Social Economy Taskforce. The ambition of this taskforce, which unveiled its first recommendations in January just before the impact of Covid-19, is to double the size of the region’s social economy.

I believe that this ambition is even more important now, as the region’s social enterprises can play a crucial role in our economic recovery.

That’s why I have invited a representative from the Social Economy Taskforce to sit on the West Midlands Recovery Coordination Group, to ensure that the sector has a voice at the table.

I have also asked the taskforce to reconvene to reassess their original recommendations for the region, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, to ensure that new challenges are included.

As a sign of our belief in the social economy, the West Midlands Combined Authority has pledged to spend at least five per cent of its procurement budget on social enterprises, while we are also urging local businesses to consider them when buying goods or services.

Some steps have been taken to achieve this pledge, in collaboration with the Black County Consortium.

This spending commitment will play an important part in achieving our ambition to double the size of the West Midlands Social Economy, as would the retention of SITR.

As the nation and our economy recovers from lockdown, we are going to need the community services and jobs provided by the social economy sector more than ever. By giving the sector a voice and protecting the tax relief that helps it attract investment, we can help support this vital social safety net, just as it supports us.

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