My Lords, the sector that is always neglected when politicians and civil servants look at growth strategies is the faith community. On 22 February last year, I led a debate in your Lordships’ House that explored the future use of nearly 50,000 church buildings standing in the middle of virtually every community in the United Kingdom. Building on this debate, on 25 March last week I hosted a national conference at Gorton Monastery in Manchester where the noble Lord, Lord Wei, spoke about the big society. Here, I must declare at interest as a director of the social enterprise, One Church, 100 Uses, which organised the event.
There are many church assets and resources in communities across this country that do not receive the recognition they deserve. At Trinity United Reformed Church in Gosforth, Newcastle, the congregation is leading a business improvement district bid built on the back of the work that has been done during the past decade reconfiguring three church buildings and establishing an enterprise hub which is now redefining the centre of the town. Today, this church is a major local employer.
Gorton Monastery, the conference venue, is today run as an enterprise specialising in banqueting, conferences, weddings and business bookings. Yet a decade ago, this was a cathedral-
Another national example is the Bromley by Bow Centre in east London, which I founded-
However, while I am delighted that many churches are embracing the idea of the big society, there are significant problems that will hinder their existence. We all know that the macro growth of the British economy depends on the success of thousands of small businesses like those I mentioned. These entrepreneurial cultures take time to build. To undermine them when they are starting to fly is not wise in the long term. The present financial cuts, made irrespective of local context, are threatening the additional unpublicised services that are deeply embedded in thriving entrepreneurial centres.
In East London, at the Bromley by Bow Centre, the CEO, a businessman by background with considerable financial skill, is struggling to shave more than £1 million from his budget because of the scale of the cuts that the organisation faces. He is losing vital services. Despite the rhetoric from the Government, social enterprises are often being disproportionately disadvantaged by the cuts when resources are allocated from central pots and from local authorities.
I suggest that the big society depends on micro businesses as exemplars to lead the way.I therefore request that the Minister actively explores practical ways to identify, promote and foster economic growth within this emerging entrepreneurial sector across the UK. Much of it is based in some of our most challenging communities. The social sector is formed from many shoots and distinctions need to be drawn to protect these young entrepreneurial flowers. Will the Minister please inform the House how the Government plan to empower social enterprises in some of our most challenged communities?