Everyday economy: People, policy, place, and power

Our Chair and cofounder, Caroline Theobald CBE was invited to share her thoughts around inclusive economy, fairness of opportunities and her experiences of building both in the North East.

What gives me the authority?

1) Born with a silver spoon, but married a commercial fisherman from North Shields, then a run down fishing port in north east England, east of Newcastle, and ‘ through marriage inherited’ two children. Bringing them up I was determined that they should have access to the life chances people like me from the south took for granted. And, for that matter so should everyone else, regardless of gender, ethnicity, ability or place.

That lived experience has informed everything I’ve done. It was my greatest education and I hope therefore it’s self -evident that I believe in the role that people, ordinary people, have in regenerating economies. If only they’re give the voice, the tools and the opportunity to do it.

To that end I set up Bridge Club Ltd in 2000 to bridge between early stage business founders and the people who would help them grow their businesses. We also ran creative enterprise programmes in schools and found short-term work placements for students in what I call the ‘department store’ of north east businesses ie all types and all sizes of businesses and organisations .

The premise was very simple – north east England had very low start up rates and high structural unemployment. Bridge Club was my initiative to accelerate enterprise and entrepreneurship for PEOPLE in the PLACE that I lived and which, the economic and social stats demonstrated needed it badly.

We’re now half way through 2021 and the sad fact remains that, 20 years on, the NE still has one of lowest start up rates and one of highest unemployment rates in the UK. Being bottom of all the right social, economic and health stats and top of the wrong ones tells its own story, Stats don’t mean north-easterners don’t have ability. Giving them the opportunity to show that they DO is what matters. My present company FIRST does just that.

FIRST, is the daughter of Bridge Club and is run by a young north-easterner, Charlotte Windebank. Its core driver is a commitment to listen and thereby learn and act. The business is based on developing leadership and progression skills for young people, early stage founders and professionals. Policy and purpose, in order to be effective, must come from the ground floor as it were, ie from the people living the experience of high unemployment, low self-esteem and aspiration.

FIRST has grown into an accredited learning and development agency specializing in building essential commercial skills. We work with universities, local authorities and devolved government to make those all important connections to job markets and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Evidence says that 95% of employers want employees with enterprise skills – and those startup/self-employment stats speak for themselves. More early stage founders with sustainable businesses are essential to the area’s economic recovery.

Our mission is to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities and new ideas within their local community. We run an accredited level 1 in enterprise underpinned by the EntreComp model (develop ideas, seize opportunity, gather resources and take action). This, and a follow on level 1 in accountancy sponsored by SAGE plc go way beyond the formal evidential need for change to make society fairer. But don’t just take my word for it.

Matt Pritchard was working in an HR role in hospitality before being furloughed. Our course, Understanding Enterprise, helped him focus on his skills and move into a desired new role

Leanna Hill dropped out of university. Our course helped her find the confidence to use her expertise and pursue (and gain) an internship In User Experience with a leading digital agency, Hedgehog Lab.

This is how change happens, IF policy makers take note.

My inspirational friend, Prof Jane Turner, PVC for enterprise, engagement and gender equality at Teesside University was saddened by the ‘top down’ approach that appeared to be the model in the evidence gathering for UK2070 Commission’s Teesside Task Force, which as you know is the long term, politically independent ‘levelling up’ initiative.

Tees Valley economic prosperity sits at only 75% of the UK average (and yes, just the average) and it has a relatively low concentration of people in higher skilled and higher paid jobs. There are also high levels of deprivation in certain areas. Take Chainbridge Road where life expectancy alters by a year every mile you go up it. But, as ‘Everyday Economy’ promises - ‘Levelling Up’ is about more than economics, it is about social prosperity; health and wellbeing; raising aspirations creating opportunity and harnessing the potential of individuals.

Having that philosophy herself, Jane Turner wanted to go under the radar of policy makers and big business. She wanted to gather the lived experience of girls and young women growing up in the Tees Valley. She wanted to hear from Tees students, recent graduates and also senior education leaders with access to primary and secondary children and their families. She wanted to know what it’s REALLY LIKE growing up and living in the Tees Valley. What do people say would help them work harder, have hope, late alone greater aspirations. What would make their life easier so they have the head space to learn. Try studying when you are hungry or cold or fearful of going home. And she wanted to get these realities articulated so that they will really inform and influence future policy.

I had the privilege of recruiting for and running these focus groups. They made both shocking, and hopeful listening. Give us voice and we’ll rise to the challenge was the message we heard loud and clear. Don’t judge us by our postcodes or statistics. I sincerely hope the policy makers are listening. 

The same ‘listening to lived experience’ has informed the inspirational campaign that Jane has initiated to shift and lift aspirations of young girls in the Tees Valley where low levels of participation in further and higher education and aspiration have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

In the findings of The Plan 2020 the report explores the state of women’s rights in the UK, but it contains a local authority index based on child poverty, life expectancy, educational attainment, child obesity, teenage conception rates and NEET status). It sets out a picture of inequality facing girls across the UK. In the 2020 index, Hartlepool features in the bottom 10, and in the previous report Middlesbrough ranked last overall.

But what brings these research findings sharply home is the evidence that the girls don’t FEEL the way people perceive them to BE. They DON’T lack ambition. They ARE ambitious and academically able. I know this because I’ve met some of them and talked to many. I have lots of anecdotal evidence but the headline is this: ‘the boys call us washing machines, because that’s all they think we’re good for’ This was said at a Further Education College. THIS HAS TO STOP. And boys need educating too.

That was shocking for us to hear. But sometimes a shock is a driver for action. And this was Jane’s. As a result, Jane and some colleagues (including me) launched the Power of Women Campaign in the Tees Valley three months ago. Our aim is very simple. To lift and shift the aspirations of girls and young women growing up in the Tees Valley (to start with), by giving them their voice, access to role models and through them the belief that they CAN live their dreams.

Giving voice and opportunity is what I’ve tried to do through my work and voluntary commitments – it’s as a result of my own lived experience and I know that it works.

I hope that Everyday Economy and initiatives like it will persuade more politicians and policy makers to believe in this approach.

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