THE BLOG

The First Billion - We're Just Getting Started

08/09/2017 12:00 BST | Updated 08/09/2017 12:00 BST

You may have seen recently, here at Big Society Capital we've just hit a milestone - a billion pounds of social investment committed by us and our co-investors and available to the sector. Over half of it is already drawn down and being used at the front line. It's real progress, tough work building up to this by investors and the charities and social enterprises working it out and making it succeed for their mission. It's a milestone that means more charities and social enterprises using social investment to boost their work, more diversity of ways of using investment, most of all more people having better lives. And to check out some of that difference it's made to people, our 5 year impact report is now available.

So it's progress, but is it enough? Does it make a difference to people's lives?

First and foremost, there are some vital areas of social investment that are only just opening out. Access for example, making smaller loans more affordable. Crowdfunding and community shares. Tax breaks like SITR. These important areas of social investment still have a long way to go and can achieve much more.

I'm thinking beyond that: what is the future going to be like?

Let's take Brexit: whatever the long term consequences for good or bad, in the short run people on low incomes are likely to be hit most. In many places that's already the case, with inflation rising beyond incomes: if you are already on the edge, that can be the last straw. Organisations like Fair for You are making a difference in this area. They are challenging the model of high cost lending, providing loans for household items and white goods to people who struggle to find affordable credit.

Social Investment Scotland invested in Fair for You to support their work across the UK and help it expand throughout Scotland. But the UK has many areas which have been left behind in economic growth, where people feel stuck with pockets of high unemployment and much wider-spread minimum wage economies with little hope of any progression.

People feel that banks have withdrawn from supporting the kind of small business economy that could offer a way forward. The UK's CDFI sector - now Responsible Finance - has strived to help but has never had the consistency of support and scope of permitted activities to provide an alternative at the scale needed.

And crucially, it is these "left behind" areas which will feel the biggest loss of EU funds in just 18 month's time. It is essential - for social, economic and political reasons, existential reasons for the future cohesion of our society - that new approaches are developed urgently. And that will take a collaboration - social investment, business investment, infrastructure investment, bringing skills from several existing agencies and getting started on the planning now.

We are up for playing a part, using social investment as one contribution. We can invest in community enterprises and assets, we can test out new financial approaches for inclusive finance, address some of the specialist areas of housing, and I'm sure that more ideas will come from the social and community sectors themselves.

Brexit and its impact on underserved areas is one immediate big scale issue, but there are several more coming down the line. Automation, artificial intelligence, robotics: these technological changes will create both great benefits and massive challenges, with swathes of job sectors radically affected. The disruption through these changes will bring social problems affecting millions of people. It feels at present as though the UK is paralysed by this oncoming change: it's talked about frequently, everyone knows it's getting close now, but what action is being taken to prepare for it? What capacity is being built that could address the negative effects which are inevitable? We will need a bigger, more capable social investment sector working alongside business and infrastructure investors, to stand any chance of rising to these challenges.

Yes we have achievements to chalk up. That was a lot of hard slog by many people especially the pioneers who faced the risks of the unknown, the leaders of charities and social enterprises who took the first moves, the people it's all for, sorting out their lives in often painful circumstances.

But there is no sign that current achievements are enough.

Not for what we have been doing, not for what we should be reaching out to do now, and most certainly not for these "near future" challenges which are coming soon.

So for us and all the intermediaries, plus I'm sure many charities and social enterprises, we've come to the top of the first hill just in time to work out how to plan out the mountain range ahead. Time to get started.