Reducing inequality in Oxford: what progress is being made?
by Caroline Hartnell
Almost a year ago, on 1 March 2019, I met with a group of people from Oxford – city council officials, an elected councillor and staff of social enterprise Aspire Oxford – to talk about their vision for the city. There was much talk of social enterprises, cooperatives, community wealth building, paying the living wage. What is noteworthy about Oxford is that these things are being talked about in a city that is wealthy and flourishing rather than one that is abandoned and left behind, as the places featured in Rethinking Poverty more typically are. The emphasis in Oxford is not on revitalising a failing place but on reducing inequality – as measured by the Gini coefficient, Oxford is the second most unequal city in the UK (Cambridge is the most unequal).
A year later, I talked to Paul Roberts, CEO of Aspire Oxford, an employment charity and social enterprise directly addressing inequality, and asked him what progress had been made in realising an inclusive economy and reducing inequality in Oxford.
Greater acceptance of the narrative
In Roberts’ view, the narrative around this is now more commonly understood and accepted. ‘Since we met there’s been a series of focused conversations with key stakeholders accepting that they need to talk about realising an inclusive economy and to take more responsibility for bringing this vision to life.’ The Oxford Strategic Partnership, chaired by Baroness Jan Royall, has led a series of workshops over the last few months looking at how an inclusive economy model can help tackle and reduce inequality in Oxford. Two universities, further and higher education providers, local authorities, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and other anchor institutions in the city are involved.
The last workshop was co-led by Baroness Royall and the CEO of Oxford City Council, Gordon Mitchell, ‘so there’s quite senior level buy-in’. The LEP’s latest local industrial strategy talks about reducing inequality and encouraging more inclusive economic growth, including setting up an Inclusive Economy Commission. ‘So there’s a positive narrative going in the right direction. Now we need to start doing it. What we need is leadership, across sectors and across organisations.’
How is Aspire helping?
A key role for Aspire, identified in the earlier article, is helping people in disadvantaged areas to access employment opportunities and to set up their own enterprises. Aspire now has a dedicated enterprise development staff member and an enterprise development programme to do this. Among other things, Aspire, as a founding member of the Oxfordshire Social Entrepreneurship Partnership (OSEP), is supporting the set-up of six enterprise hubs across the county, just about to be launched, as part of the new eScalate programme funded by the LEP. Three of the hubs are in the city. Aspire itself is delivering one of them, working alongside community enterprise Flo’s from East Oxford. ‘This is where we think we will be able to make a difference in helping to tackle inequality because the deprivation is deepest there, and there is less in the way of resources and social capital.’
Another role for Aspire is helping community enterprises to get affordable space from the council or other local organisations. Here again, the city council narrative has shifted positively, says Roberts. ‘They are encouraging “meanwhile use” of empty space, including their own.’ Makespace Oxford – a community enterprise that occupies a university-owned building which houses 20 organisations – is now taking over another empty space from a university college in central Oxford. ‘It’s quite a big space,’ says Roberts, ‘a former restaurant, more central than their first building, higher profile.’
What progress on the living wage?
Aspire is now an accredited living wage organisation with the Living Wage Foundation. It continues to engage employers to encourage inclusive recruitment and it has its own inclusive recruitment service.
Are employers receptive? ‘Yes, they’re struggling to recruit so they know they need to explore all options, and we can help them to make their opportunities more accessible and sustainable.’ The difficulty of recruiting will become more pronounced if the newly announced immigration policies are implemented, says Roberts. ‘A good example is the organisation that runs facilities management and catering for the John Radcliffe Hospital site. A significant proportion of their current staff are foreign nationals. We also work with Pret à Manger, who say only one in 50 of their job applications come from British people.’
What progress on using procurement to build community enterprises?
Adopting new ways of procuring services to incorporate social value is seen as one of the key ways of encouraging growth of community enterprises, including in the poorest parts of Oxford, says Roberts. The eScalate enterprise hub programme will help develop the supply side – social enterprises, co-ops, CICs, etc. This will give larger companies wanting to change the way they do procurement more choice of who to buy from, ‘but that will take time and resource’.
‘At the same time we need buyers to step up and start choosing social enterprises, and that’s the area where I don’t think it has developed as quickly as we had hoped. There’s been nothing new nationally,’ he says. ‘We have the same Social Value Act as before, and it’s not yet a high government priority as far as I can see.’
One organisation that is making it practically easier for larger organisations to procure from smaller organisations is Supply Change, and Aspire is going to start working with them. ‘They’ve been piloting working with housing associations and local councils, and developing a portal to help make it easier for them to procure services from social enterprises.’
But development of community enterprises won’t be enough on its own. An essential piece of the puzzle is large organisations being willing to break up existing huge contracts, which could only be taken on by big companies, into smaller ones – as demonstrated in Preston. ‘Again leadership is needed. The message needs to come from the top to the procurement teams at large organisations.’
How to measure progress?
Another issue, says Roberts, is how we are going to measure ourselves and demonstrate we’re moving in the right direction. ‘Again this comes down to leadership.’ Aspire has a ‘balanced scorecard’ with five measures, including social impact, financial viability and enterprise productivity. ‘These give us targets to aim for and to measure progress against. The city council, LEP and other stakeholders should seek to adopt similar targets to realise an inclusive economy – on procurement, enterprise growth, educational attainment, etc – so we can see what we’re aiming for in each area and how we’re actually doing, together. That would excite me! Preston has measures for how much of their procurement is now local, and how much of each pound is retained in the area. We need that leadership here. There’s very little information about an inclusive economy in Oxford.’
So overall the picture is positive, says Roberts. ‘The narrative has developed, but implementation is now needed. There are some practical examples of progress, like the enterprise hubs, but we need to see things happening more consistently across all areas and over a longer time before we can say yes, Oxford’s got it. We can’t yet claim the mantra like Plymouth and Preston, where they’ve really taken the bull by the horns.’
This is the first of a series of regular updates on progress in Oxford.
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