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  • Writer's picturePaul White

Devon’s regeneration is in the hands of its communities?

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

The Covid response, Regenerate Devon Summit and recent analysis of social enterprise activity in Exeter and Rural Devon confirms the existence of a vibrant, innovative and disruptive social movement, actively developing and delivering solutions and services addressing a wide range of social issues and concerns for individual, family, and community wellbeing.

The story of this community power was very well demonstrated by the response to the very recent Regenerate Devon Summit. A 3-day virtual event hosted by the social enterprise networks of ESSENCE of ExeterPlymouth Social Enterprise Network, and Local Torbay Spark. 3 days, 13 sessions, 30 speakers and 10 hours of innovation and co-creation from over 600 delegates ranging from individual social entrepreneurs and innovators, through to established social enterprise and local commercial businesses.

We perhaps should not be surprised by this. The Covid 19 national call to action produced 750,000 NHS volunteer registrations in less than 2 days, alongside a proliferation of volunteering start-ups to help vulnerable neighbours with shopping, collecting medicine and such like. There are nearly 3,500 local mutual aid groups registered on the Covid-19 Mutual Aid website and around two million people have joined local support networks on Facebook.

Whilst volunteering levels during this pandemic have been extra-ordinary, the response is in effect a reflection of a fact that we live in an extremely benevolent society. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations Almanac 2020 identifies £53.5 billion in donations and income going into more than 160,000 charity and voluntary sector organisations.

Carers UK in The State of Caring In 2019 recognised 8.8 million unpaid carers delivering health and social care savings of more than £130 billion every year, and Social Enterprise UK – Hidden Revolution report (2018) highlighted that not for profit social enterprise contributed over £60 billion to the UK economy, and employment for more than 2 million people.

An opportunity to establish a placed-based view of need and partnership

At the summit one of the innovations we had the pleasure of learning more about from the creator Kate Raworth was the Doughnut Economics framework for sustainable development and sharing the aspiration for this approach helping to re-frame economic and social challenges and development of solutions.

In this model, we learned that an economy is considered prosperous when all twelve social foundations are met without overshooting any of the nine ecological ceilings. This situation is described by the area between the two rings and represents the place of safe and sustainable state for communities and humanity.

Using this approach to map existing Exeter and Rural Devon social enterprise activity demonstrates very well the dynamic nature of social enterprise contribution to addressing social foundation need as well as the ecological challenges. Water supply is the only social foundation category not serviced by a ‘not for profit’.

This place-based approach to understanding community need and voluntary and social enterprise service activities creates the basis for a system stewardship opportunity, whereby:

  1. gaps in service provision can become better understood.

  2. opportunities for existing providers of services to reach out and service new communities can be identified.


  1. social entrepreneurs and innovators can be encouraged to develop new solutions.

This and more is needed because despite the public benevolence and combined efforts of charity, voluntary community, social enterprises, and public sector organisations a huge range of unmet need across a range of complex social issues remained. Notable concerns included rising poverty, increased mental health demand, and continued growth in the ageing population living with one or more long-term chronic conditions. Now, as has been widely reported, the expectation is that these and other challenges are set to get even bigger because of the pandemic.

Opportunity to capitalise on the emergence of new social norms

On a positive note and as the country emerges from social isolation, we are also seeing new and additional ways the entrepreneurial community spirit is rallying to respond to COVID-19, at a personal level, almost all citizens have willingly sacrificed private freedoms for public good. The crisis has brought neighbours and communities together to care for each other, and created social movements promoting ‘buy local’ and an emphasis toward better supporting local business and social enterprise.

At the same time concern for sustainability to be achieved within sensible ecological boundaries remains high. There is subsequently great potential for this change to persist beyond the pandemic, with entrepreneurial community spirit creating opportunity to mitigate some of the economic impacts of social isolation and reduced economic activity within communities.

Going forward the key to managing the additional impacts of COVID-19 is not in just the leveraging of these services to maximum effect, but in how they are supported and assisted to meet rising demand, connect and collaborate and able to avoid in the process becoming less effective or constrained through lack of access to additional resources and / or funding.

Despite the challenges, there is plenty to be optimistic about

Our community organisations are already proving their ability and capability to play a pivotal role in how local amenities and other services are managed, and how they can positively impact individuals, families and communities and their experience of life. Through these efforts we have the foundation to build a sustainable and more pro-active early intervention and preventative individual, family, and community wellbeing development approach.

ESSENCE, through utilisation of its social enterprise network and in partnership working with the charitable and voluntary sectors, is confident that an assured and robust local ecosystem can be established to build on this opportunity, and that the social enterprise business model is a perfect vehicle to achieve this in a socially accepting and sustainable way.

About the author – Paul White is a Director at ESSENCE of Exeter and CEO of eCulture Solutions, is a passionate exponent of social enterprise and the opportunity to leverage digital innovation and technology in the delivery of sustainable, social and public service transformation and change better addressing development of population wellbeing.

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