Peter Holbrook (pic Guardian UK)

A great discussion was held today with high-profile Social Enterprise UK leader (and UK Mutuals Ambassador) Peter Holbrook. The big picture global social and economic problems were clearly set out. In response to this, and despite the austerity program of the UK Government, there have been some good public policy moves in the UK that have been supported at a bi-partisan level (‘Social Value’ and ‘Right to Buy’ legislation were mentioned). Social enterprise needs to think more systemically in Australia, and we can learn much from the UK. Interestingly Peter said that many of the UK public policy initiatives have come from Australia, but have been implemented in the UK.

Peter talked about the big picture social and environmental problems we face globally. It was daunting to see that the level of CO2 emissions only abated from an increasingly dangerous and upward trend when ‘the Great Recession’ hit. Since then, economic growth has lifted but the emission levels are rising again at an alarming rate.

Peter posited social enterprise as the response to this ‘perfect storm’. Certainly, putting profit to social and environmental purpose is an important way to start to reverse the negative trends found in our economy.

As an Ambassador for mutuals and co-operatives Peter talked about the great contribution of the Rochdale approach to social enterprise in the UK – the long tradition of co-operation given birth in that part of the world. Despite some recent real problems in their banking area; the Co-Operative Group in the UK is a great contributor to the economy and the common good. With gross sales of 13.5 billion pounds (see Co-operative Group 2012 report), 123,000 staff and around 6 million members it is a social enterprise powerhouse.

When it came to question time I raised the issue that as someone who is engaged in assisting a co-operative social enterprise start-up I have experienced some negativity towards the co-operative model, and talking about legal structures in general. Peter responded that the Community Interest Company structure in the UK has really assisted social enterprise start-ups in the UK. This has been a catalyst for social enterprise development.

For social enterprise to thrive we need to promote a diversity of business models in the economy. In other fora Peter has talked about successful social enterprise initiatives that blend co-operative, mutual employee-owner approaches, such as Greenwich Leisure Ltd and Central Surrey Health Service. Closer to home in Australia we have the inspiring example of the West Belconnen Health Co-operative in the ACT that has been very successful. With no government funding a great health service is up and running that assists all; and particularly those on a low income. In general Peter talked about the need for all social enterprises to work together; I could not agree more.

After the discussion someone challenged me on why I would even need to bring up the issue of legal structures; the gist being that it was all about impact. My feeling is that that the way we get to social impact matters. Not every enterprise can or should be a co-op or mutual. However, as stated, just raising this issue of legal form appears to be a bit controversial. Was I stirring the pot a little and/or raising a legitimate area for discussion?

Social Traders and Australia Post are to be congratulated for putting on this event and raising the profile of social enterprise in Australia. Peter Holbrook will provide much inspiration for many. Apparently both the Opposition and Government in Canberra were very open to his ideas in a recent meeting. One can hope.

Antony McMullen, Thursday 30 May, 2013