Local economies

The value of community-minded businesses

Margaret Bolton, Director of Policy at Local Trust, reflects on her attendance at an international community economics conference and considers how the UK can learn from partnerships formed elsewhere

It’s an unexpectedly warm day in the countryside on the outskirts of London, Ontario. Inside a blisteringly hot greenhouse, the founder of the Greenhouse Academy, Jeff Crosby, shows around some 15 delegates, including me, as part of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network Conference.

Jeff explains what the Greenhouse Academy does and why he had set it up. Now the joint owner of a landscaping business, at school, he would have been classified as an ‘at risk’ pupil. He didn’t thrive; he simply couldn’t see the point of lessons. Now he and his brother, a trained teacher, provide work experience for ‘at risk’ students and opportunities for pupils to complete courses by undertaking practical projects. A little while ago, Jeff elaborates, the teacher of a group of such pupils due to attend had called to forewarn him about them. He prepared to meet young gangsters, but on visiting their school, identified them simply as disengaged and therefore lacking in energy. They were great at the Academy – very polite, helpful and hard working. He couldn’t fault them.

We are shown around a classroom, a potting room, a garden designed by a group of pupils, several greenhouses and storage areas. There are no students in the greenhouses today, but there’s a sense of anticipation; everything is spic and span awaiting the next school group. Jeff tells us that the projects the pupils work on simulate the projects his business bids for. Pupils calculate the quantities of materials they need for a job, obtain quotations and work out the most efficient way to organise the labour. Older pupils develop and deliver lesson plans for younger ones and delegate tasks, ensuring everything goes smoothly. Jeff says that many children who aren’t doing well at school discover leadership capacities they didn’t know they had in this environment.

One of the delegates asks Jeff, “are you a social enterprise?”. He replies that the Greenhouse Academy is a conventional company because that’s what he’s familiar with, but not one that’s turning a profit. It’s covering its costs now, but only because the Academy shares its premises with his business. This creates economies of scale, making it possible to buy the supplies the Academy needs affordably. Schools are charged a fee that covers basic costs, and the Greenhouse Academy helps schools raise the money.

Jeff put a chunk of his savings – quite a substantial chunk – into funding the pilot or ‘feasibility study’ phase, he says (to use his recently-learned vocabulary). He wanted to pursue his passion, horticulture and to work with his brother on an initiative that meant a lot to both of them.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Jeff’s story is the extent of support he has received from other companies in the horticultural business. These companies compete with him every day for contracts but have chosen to collaborate on the Academy, to encourage young people into their industry by giving a taste of what it offers. A large nursery donates waste stock, several other businesses provide plant pots which would be thrown away if it weren’t for the Academy washing and reusing them. A manufacturer of interlocking paving is working with Jeff to address the need for skilled workers to install a high-demand product so that it doesn’t remain on the shelves.

Jeff’s view is that young people need to be given more real-life work experience – they need to understand what work entails and the range of opportunities out there. He’s doing his bit with an initiative that, only three years in, seems to hold great promise.

The tour mirrored one of the things that most struck me about the conference: the extent to which the debate was sector-blind. The focus was on the community benefit delivered, rather than on the legal status of the organisation catalysing it; mainstream companies featuring alongside not-for-profit organisations.

A research report we will publish later this month by Professor Pete Tyler and colleagues from Cambridge University’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research, ‘Achieving local economic change – what works?’, says that in the most deprived areas of England, links between business and community are often weak. The report suggests that we lack effective business engagement models at a local level, which inhibits combined agendas promoting the common interests of business and the community. This rings true to us. It is as an obstacle to local economic development that we would very much like to work with others to overcome.