Introducing the social challenge

Is the Tees Valley Business Challenge, the new opportunity for social innovation and tackling Fuel Poverty in the UK?

As an advocate of the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector (VCSE), having worked and volunteered within the sector in many guises over the last 20 years, which has included regenerating ex-coalfields communities and operating a very ‘ground up’ approach through a Rural Community Council.  Then working as Lottery Officer, a VCSE lead for a Local Authority and the Community Strategy and Partnerships Manager, volunteering as a trustee for a community foodbank, being a voluntary Director of a health and wellbeing CIC (Community Interest Company), Social Enterprise EV Car Club developer, and a chair of my local community association improving my own community. I feel it essential to understand the vital role this ‘sector’ brings to all aspects of society, how it can affect real changes in communities at all levels and how new innovative ways of delivering Community Renewal Funds may bring a more fundamental approach to developing sustainable Social Enterprises in the future. Tackling key societal issues such as fuel poverty and affordable warmth is one of my real passions.

What is the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise Sector? Is it even a sector?

The term VCSE sector is an all-encompassing term that attempts to categorise voluntary, community, charitable and social enterprises. Over the years, it has been called many different titles, including ‘The Third Sector’, The ‘VCS - Voluntary and Community Sector’, the ‘Charitable Sector’ to name a few. In my opinion, it is hard to categorise, as the sector touches all areas of society and business. The key difference is, that organisations are either charitable and seen as not for profit, or when an organisation seeks to make profits, those are reinvested back into the organisation for social benefit thus making it a social enterprise. These Social Enterprises are value driven, independent organisations, which principally reinvest any surpluses made to further their social, environmental and or cultural aims and objectives.

VCSE organisations range in size, from small community groups delivering toddler group sessions in a local community venue, to billion pound organisations such as The Arts Council which is the UK’s number one charity (at the end of December 2021 with an income of £1.4bn and 618 employees according to the Charity Commission).

What is the benefit of the VCSE Sector?

The VCSE sector is fundamental to the delivery of services across the UK and the social, environmental, health and cultural benefits it brings. This was never more evident, than during the health crisis of 2020 where the VCSE sector was the backbone, to supporting communities across the country cope and survive during the pandemic. The sector is dynamic, entrepreneurial, and fast to respond to any given issue or crisis. Just take the current Ukrainian situation where the sector is responding quickly to arranging donations, and collections of essential items to be shipped over to support the refugees fleeing their homeland. But even in times of relative calm the sector identifies gaps in communities across the UK and develops responses to them in a rapid and commercial manner.

Who supports this network of dynamic VCSE’s?

Infrastructure organisations across the UK support the VCSE sector to develop, improve, respond to challenges, innovate and have a voice. Within the North East VONNE ‘Voluntary Organisation Network North East’ works across the region and supports VCSE organisations and infrastructure bodies to:

  • be well informed on the policy, practice and strategic developments that affect the sector.
  • ensure the voices of the sector are heard.
  • facilitate partnerships and build opportunities for collaboration within the VCSE community in the North-East, and between the sector and external stakeholders.
  • provide funding information and facilitate programmes to build skills, capacity and develop leadership, governance and innovation within the sector.

How is the sector funded and sustainable?

Funding is and always will be, the most challenging element of the sector and it is why more and more of the sector, is moving to socially trading organisations such as Social Enterprises, Community Interest Companies and Co-operatives. This allows the organisations to ‘trade’ i.e. to sell products and/or services to make money, which is then reinvested within the organisations to continue their charitable objectives. A new and innovative challenge approach is emerging in the North East and in particular in the Tees Valley, which is using Governmental Community Renewal Fund monies to deliver solutions, to complex issues across a wide range of sectors which all small businesses within the Tees Valley can respond to, known as the Tees Valley Business Challenge – TVBC.

What is the Tees Valley Business Challenge and how does it work?

The Tees Valley Business Challenge – TVBC is using a design led approach, to understand complex challenges for large organisations and marrying those with SME’s who can respond to the challenge and bring new innovation, aka the Solution Developers! The programme is a short 6 month pilot to review challenges across five key areas:

  • Healthcare
  • Digital
  • Manufacturing
  • Social Enterprise; and
  • Wellbeing

How are the challenges defined?

A small team of ‘connectors’ I.e. people like myself with an understanding of the various sectors and challenge areas worked with stakeholders and cluster networks to identify, understand and define the challenges. Then connect larger organisations who had a particular challenge in that area which they wanted to find a new solution to. Within the Social Enterprise sector, we worked with a whole range of organisations to understand what the challenges were with around ten challenges originally highlighted. We then worked with VONNE to scope and define the challenges in more detail, narrowing the challenge areas down to three key areas:

  • Fuel poverty and decarbonisation;
  • Digital Poverty and digital inclusion; and
  • Health and wellbeing – mental health concerns within the sector and front-line practitioners working at crisis point.

Each of the challenges defined within the Social Enterprise cluster had significant need to be taken forward, however within the scope of the programme only one could be chosen. Discussions and ‘sense checking’ with other partners and the VCSE sector quickly led me to contacting National Energy Action (NEA). NEA are the national fuel poverty charity, that works to eradicate fuel poverty and campaigns for greater investment in energy efficiency to help those with low-incomes or vulnerabilities gain affordable heat.  Based regionally, in Newcastle Upon Tyne but with a national reach they were the obvious choice for a ‘Challenge Holder’ for the programme.

What is fuel poverty and affordable warmth?

As we all know the cost of energy rising, and the choice between heating and eating is an issue experienced by millions of families across the UK. In the Tees Valley, around 1 in 7 households cannot afford to access the energy which they need to stay warm and well at home. This situation is often defined as ‘fuel poverty’, but there is often a perceived stigma around fuel poverty, a lack of understanding as to what exactly the term means, and questions around the extent to which people recognise themselves as ‘fuel poor’ or at risk of fuel poverty.

Energy Bills doubling...

With domestic heating bills set to have doubled over the last 18 months, it is increasingly urgent that fuel poverty and the affordability of energy is recognised and addressed. Due to the current energy crisis those who have been on the 'edge' of fuel poverty will now find themselves struggling to pay their energy bills, yet have little or no support available to them. Meanwhile, those already unable to afford the energy they need will see their situations become unimaginably worse, forcing them to cut back on heating to avoid getting into debt and causing unnecessary damage to their health and wellbeing.

What about the climate crisis and decarbonisation?

The energy crisis is taking place within the context of the broader climate crisis and the UK government’s pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Tees Valley will play a crucial role in this endeavour, building on its historic industrial base to develop new technologies, services, and products to decarbonise different sectors of the economy. It is already at the forefront of ongoing revolutions in offshore wind, hydrogen production, and carbon capture and storage technologies, which have a significant potential to boost investment, jobs, and growth in the region. Innovators are also developing new products at different scales which will play a pivotal role in decarbonising the Tees Valley.

However, this current progress is not currently being harnessed to benefit those in or at risk of fuel poverty, and there is a correspondingly a real potential for the development of new products, business models, and links between communities and energy services to tackle fuel poverty, kickstart fair and equitable pathways to decarbonise homes, and improve health and wellbeing in the communities of Tees Valley.

Getting to the nitty gritty of the challenge...

We would like to see organisations within the Tess Valley area to apply for a grant of up to £5,000 to research any new products, business models, and/or services which:

Will link communities and energy services that can tackle fuel poverty, kickstart fair and equitable pathways to decarbonise homes, and improve health and wellbeing in the communities of Tees Valley.

The organisations/Solution Developers will then have the opportunity to apply for a further £45,000 to develop their ideas further and to develop new products, services or pathways to tackle fuel poverty, and kickstart a fair and equitable route to decarbonise homes, improve health and wellbeing in the communities of Tees Valley, working with NEA to support the reduction of fuel poverty in the long term.

But can a difference really be made to such a complex area in such a short time?

I believe that the dynamism, innovation and expertise in the Tees Valley will bring a drive to make a difference and as applications are welcome for round 1 of funding until midday on Monday 7th March we don’t have long to wait to find out.

As the ambition for the social cluster is to see Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations engaged in innovative activities to develop sustainable solutions for the sector and wider population, I hope that this is a new way of working that may allow the VCSE to engage in more innovative programmes in the future that do create real change without the often ridiculous bureaucracy that comes with funding programmes, and maybe one day we will see less restrictive timescales too… one can live in hope!

Want to know more?

Take a look at the TVCA Business Challenge page.