Social enterprises sector worth £645m to Northern Ireland economy says report

Gary McDonald Business Editor

SOCIAL enterprises are now a "significant growth area" and has become a fundamental element of a re-balanced and more plural economy in Northern Ireland, being worth £645 million to the region's economy and employing around 25,000 people, a new report has found.

But the sector - which is made up of business in almost every industry, and which often work with the most vulnerable in society including the homeless, the unemployed, young offenders and people living with learning difficulties and disabilities - now requires its own Social Value Act, making it an explicit requirement for central government to consider contracts for the third sector.

‘Rebalancing the NI Economy – 2019 report on social enterprise', the first comprehensive survey of the social enterprise sector in the north since 2013, was commissioned by Social Enterprise NI and conducted by Stratagem.

It found that the social enterprise employment base has grown from 12,200 in 2013 to 24,860 in 2018 while equivalent growth in turnover has increased from £592.7 million in 2013 to £980 million in 2018.

It means that when combining direct, indirect and induced impacts, the sector is currently worth £625 million to the north's economy.

Social enterprise represents a major new growth area within the economy, with 44 per cent of the organisations surveyed commencing trade in the last five years and 25 per cent within the last two years. And 43 per cent of the organisation are led by women, a figure consistent with the sector in the UK as a whole.

Some 53 per cent of organisations employ half their workforce from their immediate locality, making the sector as an important vehicle for delivering draft Programme for Government outcomes around disadvantage, deprivation, reducing economic inactivity and delivering greater innovation.

Colin Jess, director of Social Enterprise NI, which is run by a consortium of social enterprises and social entrepreneurs, said: “Social enterprises have a real appetite for growth and expansion, but they need support, like any other business, to enable them to do this. We connect, support, develop and help sustain vibrant businesses to create social change throughout Northern Ireland.

“These organisations are telling us they need more support in the form of strategic planning, management training, marketing and advocacy to help maximise their capacity to grow, access external markets and become strong and equal trading partners to private businesses.

“We will continue to support these organisations and also lobby for the introduction of a Social Value Act and work closely with local and central government and its agencies to help position social enterprise with mainstream economic policy and thinking."

Social Enterprise NI chair John McMullan added: “This report establishes the growth of social enterprise over the last five years and highlights its distinct social and economic contribution, making the case as to why the Government should invest in its continued growth.

It reinforces that social enterprises are real businesses, but their overriding social purpose ensures that they do business differently, making a real and lasting difference to peoples' lives."

He added: “As Northern Ireland moves towards a more plural re-balancing of its economy, there remains a missing piece in our economic jigsaw. We need an economic model that values social impact as an equivalent to price and quality.

“To achieve this, we need to align Northern Ireland with the other regions of the UK by introducing a Social Value Act, putting a statutory duty on the public sector to demonstrate and maximise the social impact of its spending priorities.”

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