This article is part of our Voices of the Economy series. The project brings together the economic experiences and opinions of people from a range of different backgrounds and showcases voices which are not heard as often when we talk about the economy. To find out more and share your own story, click here.
Andrew Simons is Community Development Worker for Birchfield Big Local. You can find Birchfield Big Local on their website and on Facebook and Twitter.
Birchfield Ward is a multicultural inner-city area in north Birmingham close to Perry Barr - the site of the athlete’s village and main stadium for the Commonwealth Games 2022. Along with neighbouring Lozells Ward, Birchfield Ward has been one of the areas in Birmingham most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The reasons for this are complex and may be due to a combination of factors. One is the nature of employment in the area - more people are employed in higher risk occupations, such as health workers, retail staff, public transport workers, taxi drivers and so on. There are also many households that are multi-generational with grandparents sharing a home with their children and grandchildren. There is also a history of income and health inequalities which have led to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and other health conditions which place people at greater risk.
Birchfield, however, is also one of ten Pioneer Places across the city - nominated because of the level of grassroots activity by resident-led groups in the area. One such group is Birchfield Big Local.
Set up in 2013 as part of the Lottery-funded Big Local programme, Birchfield Big Local is run by a resident-led partnership. It aims to build relationships and connect people’s gifts, passions, skills, and aspirations to help make Birchfield an even better place to live and work. It is about starting with what is strong and making visible the abundant assets that exist at the heart of any community.
At the very start of the lockdown in March this year, Birchfield Big Local teamed up with two local social enterprises - Golden Sparkle and Athac CIC - to distribute food to older residents and vulnerable families in the area. As a Pioneer Place we received some funding from the City Council to help towards the cost of the food which came from the charity FareShare. This has continued throughout the lockdown period and beyond.
From an early stage, the Birchfield Big Local partnership decided to promote and support local social enterprises. Social enterprises are businesses that have a social or environmental purpose. This means that any profits are put back into the business to further its social or environmental aims. However, a social enterprise is still a business and needs to generate profits and be sustainable.
There are many people in the Birchfield area with passions, gifts, and skills to share. While for some volunteering is an option, for many earning a livelihood is also essential, so the idea of setting up a social enterprise is the ideal solution.
Beginning in 2014 we have been working in partnership with UnLtd to support social entrepreneurs in the Birchfield area, initially through the Star People programme and more recently through the Resilient Communities programme. UnLtd is a charitable organisation set up to promote social entrepreneurship. The organisation offers cash awards, networking, and mentorship opportunities for social entrepreneurs in the UK.
Together with UnLtd we have set up a social enterprise hub which provides training and support and enables social entrepreneurs to meet and share their knowledge and experience. In 2019 a directory was produced with details of over 20 local social enterprises and since 2014 twenty-five awards have been made in partnership with UnLtd.
In response to Covid-19 the Birchfield Big Local resident-led partnership set up a Health and Wellbeing group to think about what else could be done to address the health inequalities evident in the area. Priorities included:
Reducing obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease through promoting healthy eating - including diet, nutrition etc
Promoting physical exercise and fitness
Promoting better mental health - especially for young people
Reducing isolation and loneliness - especially for the elderly
Supporting people into education, training, work, volunteering, or self-employment
Promoting the use of green space - parks, gardens, allotments - for health and wellbeing
Supporting vulnerable families and reducing household debt
Some local social enterprises already had knowledge and experience in these areas, so it was decided to invite them to put forward proposals that would help address one or more of the priorities.
Ten proposals were received of which eight were accepted. These include a mixture of online and one-to-one or small group activities relevant to young people, families, and older residents.
For example, Communities Engage and Thrive CIC are providing an online diabetes programme with food swaps, mindset coaching, online cooking sessions and lifestyle changes to help people manage their diabetes. New Beginnings Creative CIC is providing one-to-one sessions to help people into employment; and two social enterprises – Broutal Impact Team and Impact4Life Wellbeing – are providing a mixture of online fitness sessions and weekly walks in local green spaces.
The impact of Covid-19 has been challenging for everyone, but there is the opportunity for a different kind of economy to emerge in which social enterprise has a greater part to play - for the benefit of all.