Business plays vital role in community schemes

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British businesses have long recognised the need to involve themselves in community projects. More than 70 per cent of FTSE 100 companies are members of Business in the Community, the not-for-profit organisation dedicated to channelling the energy and resources of commercial enterprise into social improvement. In 2000 alone, 158 top UK firms invested a total of £370m in community programmes.

Such commitment is laudable. However, the job of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit (NRU) is to ensure that that investment reaches the areas where it is most needed. "Remember that our task is to narrow the gap between deprived areas and the rest of the country," says the NRU's Sian Jones. "So in terms of worklessness, for example, we know that particular groups, such as people with disabilities and those from ethnic minorities, are particularly badly affected, and that a high proportion of them live in deprived neighbourhoods."

Ms Jones points out that people from disadvantaged social groups may lack the confidence even to take up training because they think they won't stand a chance of getting a job even if they get to an interview. "We want businesses to help correct that image and make it clear that everybody stands an equal chance," she says.

The first step is to make sure that Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) include members from the private sector. This might include a representative from the chamber of commerce but it could equally well be an independent local business person.

In some areas, LSPs have been able to draw on existing public/private regeneration initiatives which are already working well. Take Lewisham, a borough which suffers from some of the most serious pockets of deprivation in the country. Set up three years ago, the Lewisham Challenge Partnership was a regeneration body with representatives from housing associations, community groups, police, local schools and colleges, and private employers including Sainsbury and finance giant Citigroup.

Recognising how crucial it was to get local businesses enthusiastic about neighbourhood renewal, the Lewisham Challenge Partnership used the launch of the Docklands Light Railway in November 1999 to take the bosses of 100 Lewisham companies on a special train ride to the London Arena and a business breakfast on the Isle of Dogs. It was an initiative which culminated in the launch of a new-look Lewisham-wide Chamber of Commerce, complete with a new full-time development manager as a mark of chamber's commitment to the community.

The Lewisham Challenge Partnership has evolved into an LSP and the private sector still has a strong presence in the form of board member Bob Annibale. Previously chairman of the LCP, Annibale is senior treasury risk manager at Citigroup.

So why does this powerful multi-national – Citigroup operates in more than 100 countries and in 2000 had a net income of more than £13bn – bother to send one of its senior people to discuss local Lewisham business? "We're the biggest employer in the borough," says a Citigroup corporate affair spokesperson. "With three offices there including a call centre, it really matters to us that the community is healthy. It creates both a better pool of employment for us to draw on and an improved client base."

Admirable though LSP membership is, the NRU is concerned that private sector involvement shouldn't stop there. The idea is that the partnership will guide local businesses in getting involved in grass-roots projects designed specifically to benefit the most deprived communities.

Sian Jones says: "If you had an LSP trying to reduce unemployment among, say, Bangladeshi communities, you could suggest businesses establish links with appropriate secondary schools, maybe offering work placements or work experience. Or firms could work with community centres in the area, perhaps setting up joint projects with training providers. If residents agreed to go on training courses, the businesses could guarantee them at least an interview."

What the unit has realised is that the key to successfully engaging local businesses is good communication. To this end, they have devised a new pilot scheme: Business Brokers, to be delivered jointly by Business in the Community and the British Chambers of Commerce.

The scheme will fund one local strategic partnership in each region to employ a full-time member of staff who will act as a broker, or go-between. The idea is to persuade local companies to get involved in community regeneration, under the guidance of the partnership.

"It's tricky," admits Ms Jones. "The brokers will need to understand public policy with regard to the LSP and the particular problems the local community faces, but they will also need to talk the language of business."

And who does she think will fit the bill? "We're looking for people from a private sector background but with experience of the public and voluntary sector. It's a full-time post but it could work for someone on secondment from their company. We want someone who has the skills to knock on doors and persuade companies to get involved."

Every effort is being made to make sure the new appointees are not simply thrown in the deep end. "We know that the brokers will need support and a key part of the pilot is the training programme," Ms Jones says.

The LSPs are currently in the process of bidding for their right to have a broker. The results will be announced at the beginning of February and the posts will be advertised in local press.

But if the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit has one message it wants to get across it is that one size doesn't fit all. According to Ms Jones: "We really don't want to be too prescriptive about how brokers or businesses work at this stage, as it really depends on which issues affect your particular area."

If you are interested in finding out how you and your business can get involved, call the NRU hotline on: 020-7944 8383