We caught up recently with Rita Lawson, Chief Executive of Tees Valley Rural Action (TVRA) and member of the LARCH management board. Rita also chairs the Redcar & Cleveland Area Based Panel. We wanted to find out what the social enterprise scene looks like in the rural areas TVRA covers and her hopes for LARCH over the next 5 years.
Rita, tell us about your background and experience in working with social enterprises.
My background is working across the North East and North Yorkshire in economic and community development. This has involved business growth, advice, and guidance.
I previously chaired the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) in Tees Valley, recommending projects in the rural areas for approval. This included farm diversification, new start-up businesses and tourism. I was also chair of the LEADER programme in the Yorkshire Dales, and have always had an interest in rural business affairs. I’m now working with the Tees Valley Combined Authority on the England Rural Shared Prosperity Fund which is only available for Redcar and Cleveland and so includes working closely with Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council.
TVRA works predominantly with voluntary sector organisations but in my view, these are social enterprises and are a business just like any other with the majority of them being registered with and regulated by the Charity Commission. Irrespective of their size, they may or may not employ staff and so have legal obligations under Employment Law. Many have premises they own or lease and so need to generate income in order to keep the lights on. All too often there is the expectation that voluntary sector and social enterprises will do ‘stuff’ for little or no reward but if they’re to be sustainable they need business support just as much as any other business.
What support does TVRA offer?
We offer advice and support to voluntary and community groups in the rural areas of Tees Valley. This includes the rural parts of Hartlepool and Redcar & Cleveland which LARCH covers.
TVRA works with local groups, individuals and representatives within rural communities to identify and respond to local needs; provide accurate advice, services, information and support to individuals and local groups; advocate for the rural areas and associated issues to influence local, regional and national policies; actively participate in national, regional and local partnerships.
We have a strong ‘can do’ ethos at TVRA and believe there’s more to be achieved through working in partnership to strengthen our rural communities.
What’s the social enterprise scene like in the rural parts of Redcar & Cleveland and Hartlepool?
There’s definitely hidden talent in rural areas, with people operating as a one-man band or a family business providing a service. Covid has demonstrated that you don’t necessarily have to be in a business building, you can work from anywhere with the right connectivity. We’ve got to tease out where this hidden talent is and that can only be done by working in partnership and using the skills of the LARCH Programme Manager to get the message out to rural areas. Village Hall management committees are not thought of as social enterprises, but in essence they are. They’re managing a building on behalf of a community and making a space available for people who don’t have access to transport to get them to social activities. Whatever financial surplus they generate goes directly back in to supporting community activities. Village Hall management committees are activists within a village providing a vital service for their area to tackle social isolation.
In terms of getting the message out, we’ve been explaining to people what LARCH is about at events and in meetings. We’re at that education stage and working on getting the message into the rural areas. Hopefully this work may spark ideas for people to come forward and explore what LARCH can do for them. Or, if LARCH is not for them then signpost to Redcar and Cleveland Business Growth team. Some enquiries have been from people thinking of setting up as a business for quite a while or are an existing charity wanting to scale up an activity that would warrant setting up a trading arm. We’re still in the early stages of LARCH and so education about the opportunities available are key.
One of the barriers for people wanting to set up a business in a rural area can be land or premises availability. This is where working with the respective Councils of Hartlepool and Redcar and Cleveland is important as they have access to available land and property data.
The sooner we can get from enquiry to development stage to delivering, it will be those local stories that will sell the concept.
On that note what are some good examples of existing social enterprises in your area?
Senses Wellbeing in Skelton – addressing a gap in the market in special educational needs, helping people with dementia, children with autism or life-limiting diseases and their parents, by providing a space for people to meet and exercise.
Foxwood project in Loftus – providing environmental jobs and experience in the environmental and horticultural sector
Footprints in the Community – providing emergency food and support to anyone facing food poverty and isolation in Redcar and surrounding areas.
What are your hopes and ambitions for LARCH?
I’d like to see some innovative Social Enterprises that have the ambition and capability of lasting beyond the programme and becoming embedded within their communities. The programme will have raised the benefits of being a Social Enterprise and leave a legacy of entrepreneurs with good social value mixed in. Most importantly they will be self-sustaining without the support of LARCH.
What would you say to anyone thinking of becoming a social entrepreneur and considering approaching LARCH?
If you’ve got an idea for the benefit of your community don’t be frightened about coming forward. Now might not be the right time to do something but we want to be approachable and if LARCH is not for you there may be other opportunities we can signpost to. We can help you to get started and look at ways of testing the idea. So, if you’ve got an idea, have a discussion with our Programme Manager, Neta. Who knows, this could be the start of something big for you and your area.
We’re all learning together, and hopefully in a few years’ time, we will have some on that route to being social entrepreneurs for the benefit of the community and the rest of the area.