Call for more equal funding for Community Shares
Northern Ireland is missing out on millions of pounds of funding needed to grow community enterprises, a leading expert in co-operatives and community finance has revealed.
Jo Bird, chair of Co-operative Alternatives explains that England is years ahead in the development of community enterprises because they are being supported through a co-ordinated, well-funded approach.
Community Shares are an alternative financial model in which members of the public buy shares and democratically co-own the enterprise. Many of these enterprises are switching from a reliance on grants to self-financing through Community Shares, which will result in increased community involvement and a decrease in long term funding needed by government. It also offers a chance for the local people in a community to invest in their own enterprise and have a decision in how the business is run.
Community Shares have been successfully used in England for a huge range of community-owned businesses – such as rural shops, sports clubs, renewable energy projects, community-owned buildings and local services.
Recently, the concept of Community Shares in Northern Ireland has been driven by Co-operative Alternatives, through the Community Shares Ready project supported by the Building Change Trust.
The response in Northern Ireland has been strong and in the last year four co-operative businesses have raised over £365,000 through 800 investor-members.
But a number of factors – social, political and financial - mean that Northern Ireland is lagging years behind and local people here are losing out.
In England, the development of share offers has been driven by a Government-supported Community Shares Unit set up in 2009. In addition there are numerous programmes to support community enterprise. Three programmes alone, Power to Change, the Access Foundation and Big Potential –have Lottery and government funding of over £270 million for community enterprise and investment readiness. But these funds are not available in Northern Ireland and at present, there are no equivalent programmes here.
In order to get the same support per head of the population from Government and the Lottery currently being provided in England, Northern Ireland would be entitled to £964,000 per year for ten years.
Jo Bird says this is the way to give Northern Ireland a level playing field.
She adds: “We have shown that the appetite for this type of community owned enterprise is strong in Northern Ireland. But we need properly funded, on-going support to help develop a culture where local people feel that they can make a positive contribution to the development of their community.
“Northern Ireland has its own unique challenges to overcome in order to build a strong co-operative sector funded by Community Shares. This includes economic, political, social, technical and legal issues.
“For example, one of the legacies of the Troubles is a lack of trust within and between communities. In Northern Ireland, there are fewer examples of Societies offering community shares and fewer advisors with experience of community shares. Take off is slower, due to lack of champions pushing the model on the ground.
“However, there is a relatively strong culture of self-help and community organisation in Northern Ireland. This creates an environment that is potentially conducive to a significant expansion in community shares.
“With a level playing field in terms of support, these issues can be overcome to the benefit of everyone in every community”.
Read the full report – Growing Community Shares – Infrastructure support in NI and UK – at http://www.coopalternatives.coop/resources/.