Forget The Apprentice - here's a real challenge for tomorrow's entrepreneurs


It has been great to get so many intelligent and helpful comments on the community websites idea I floated last week. I will soon provide an update on our plans. Today I am floating another idea - this time about how to get enterprise going in a deprived neighbourhood.  

I spent an hour or two yesterday morning as the guest of a housing association in Poplar, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Britain. As I walked around the sunny streets and popped into lively community centres offering a range of services to diverse and friendly groups of residents, the clouds of the global recession didn’t seem to loom so large. The social indicators in areas ranging from health to education and employment are poor and aspirations, I was told, low, but this was also a community that seemed at peace with itself; not exactly thriving but certainly not in crisis.

But this community – and hundreds like it – face a grim future. The local economy is dominated by the public sector. The main source of income is welfare benefits, the main areas of employment are in public services. Even newly established social enterprises rely exclusively on public contracts.                   

One neighbourhood was an urban island; five thousand or so residents living between motorways. The only sign of private enterprise is a run down row of shops, many of them boarded up. A rough estimate of the micro economy would be that over eighty percent of its income and paid employment would come from the state; higher than in most Eastern European states before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For any of us using public services, and indeed for society as a whole, real terms cuts year on year will be difficult to bear, but in a neighbourhood like this it is not just services but the whole local economy that will contract. The UK business sector will start to pick up late this year or next, but with little or no private sector activity, communities like this will be left in the doldrums.

This was the background for an idea I discussed with my housing association guide and that I want to float in today’s post. The aim is to explore the scope for enterprise in one of these communities. The first stage is to undertake a very detailed survey of family income and expenditure in order to get a comprehensive picture of the local economy, and then to overlay this with other information about neighbourhood resources and assets.

The second stage is to present this information to a diverse and committed panel of entrepreneurs who have accepted the challenge of developing a range of ideas to foster enterprise in the neighbourhood. The next stage is to discuss these ideas with the community itself - a kind of reality check. The final stage is to seek support from the public, private and voluntary sector so that the best ideas the best chance of being taken up and succeeding.

Has something like this already been tried; did it succeed or fail and what were the lessons? Who might partner with us and the housing association? Are there any articles or books I should read before I take the idea any further forward?

Is it even a good idea?

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