Foundational Economy

Free school meals – a healthy and sustainable school meal system

Informed by the experience in Sweden, where all primary and pre-school meals are tax-financed, we heard how the City of Malmo increased the amount of organic food served to 70% within 10 years, whilst also achieving a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) on 2002 levels. This was complemented by insights from Castell Howell Foods, an independent food wholesaler supplying 1,800 schools and the majority of local authorities in Wales.

This roundtable was held as part of our work on behalf of Welsh Government to support the foundational economy in Wales. Here are 8 of the key messages that emerged.

1. Systems change requires collaboration across policy area

The goal to provide organic food in uFSM in Malmo was driven by the Environment Department, however buy-in and cooperation from the departments for Health and Education was crucial. It was part of a wider vision for the City’s food system published in 2010 that set out that by 2020:
o All food served in Malmo should be certified organic
o GHGe from procured food should have decreased by 40% from a 2002 baseline.

2. It’s not all about budgets – a shared understanding can achieve more

In the case of Malmo, no additional money was added to food budgets to help with the transition to organic. However significant additional money was provided for training, education and raising understanding of how each part of the system could support the wider sustainability mission. This included tailored courses for staff at all levels and in all parts of the food system – cooks, managers, teachers, commissioners etc. Rather than just issuing instructions or calls to action, these courses focused on why the policy was needed and the impact that each part of the system could have in terms of making a difference and influencing others. These accompanied practical courses for delivery staff about how this could be done e.g. at the most practical level, how low carbon, nutritionally balanced meals on a budget could be produced.

3. Choose a goal that can be defined and measured (and if an existing indicator fits – use it!)

A goal for organic food was chosen over ‘sustainable food’ as there was already an agreed definition of what constituted organic, plus a credible existing certification system that i) could guarantee many of the standards and processes that the City was looking for and ii) provided a tangible way to evidence and measure progress. This removed the need to agree, embed and find a way to measure any new definition of the desired outcomes.

4. Local does not always mean better

The push to support local economies can sometimes detract from the bigger debate about what sort of local economies we want to see emerging. In terms of food, this label says nothing about how food has been produced in terms of quality, sustainable farming methods, animal welfare etc. This was another reason that the ‘organic’ goal was chosen by the Malmo team.

5. The role of teaching and catering staff is critical

In Malmo, the role of teaching staff, especially in pre-schools, was vital to encourage interest and curiosity in new foods amongst children. Meal times are also a learning opportunity and so teachers are encouraged to eat with the children and to work with kitchen staff to link the food that is being eaten to classroom activities – a factor also raised in the Learning Lessons from Scotland event.

6. It is vital to involve the supply chain

Transformation involves collaboration and in Malmo the supply chain needed to be supported and strengthened to make the policy work. In Wales, we also need to learn how to better enable producer-purchaser-policy partnerships that are based on reciprocity and help to rebalance risk. This is so that risks and short-term costs of trying to embed the ways of working that we all wish to see are not borne disproportionately by producers.

7. We need to rethink the way that staff in the food sector are valued

In Malmo, the heightened awareness about the role that school catering staff can play in the wider sustainability picture helped shift perceptions of these roles as ‘nothing jobs’ to ones that chefs in the restaurant business wanted to move into, with pull factors including the social contribution they could make as well as the family-friendly hours. In Wales, all parts of the food sector are struggling with staffing and a lack of young entrants. Reframing the opportunities within the food sector could help address this, provided that organisations are also supported to provide jobs that meet Fair Work criteria.

8. It’s a marathon not a sprint

Change takes time. The Malmo team set themselves a 10-year window to achieve the City’s goals. Even though these were not achieved in full by the 2020 deadline, it is still significant progress that others in Sweden and beyond wish to emulate. Success has been attributed to committed leadership, cross-party, cross-sector buy-in, hard work and consistent reiteration of a clear and ambitious target.

Background

The roundtable was held on 28 July 2022. The speakers were Helen Nilsson, Project Manager, Environment Department, City of Malmo and Edward Morgan, Group Corporate Social Responsibility & Training Manager, Castell Howell Foods. Presentation slides are available from admin@cynnalcymru.com.

You can read more about our first roundtable Learning Lessons from Scotland here and our wider work supporting a community of practice on the foundational economy here.

If you would like to join future roundtables or have ideas or comments around this or future themes, please contact Clare Sain-ley-Berry clare@cynnalcymru.com

Lessons from Scotland on free school meals

This commitment has been broadly welcomed but its implementation brings to light many challenges currently faced by local authorities, catering staff, suppliers and others involved in school meal provision. These range from inadequate kitchen and dining facilities in schools not designed with universal school meal provision in mind, to the disconnect between what pupils learn about food and nutrition, and the experience of their school meal.  

To better understand how these challenges might be resolved, Cynnal Cymru is convening a series of roundtables to bring together those working in the different policy and operational areas of school meal provision. Our first, in May 22, was held primarily to learn from the experience of implementing universal free school meals (uFSM) in primary schools in Scotland, where the commitment is for all primary school children to have free school meals by August 2022. 

The speakers were Prof. Mary Brennan, University of Edinburgh Business School and Chair of the Scottish Food Coalition and Jayne Jones, Commercial Manager at Argyll & Bute Council and Chair of Assist FM –a non-profit association working to promote the facilities management services of all member local authorities in Scotland. The roundtable was chaired by Prof. Kevin Morgan from Cardiff University.  

Below is a summary of some key points shared by the presenters and attendees. The full meeting notes are also available. 

uFSM must be seen as a vehicle for multiple policy objectives 

The role that school food has to play in enhancing public health and well-being must be looked at in a context extending far beyond just provision of nutrition and calories. School food matters to many cross-cutting themes and is at the heart of a ‘good food nation’. 

Dining together in schools helps children develop important, but sometimes overlooked, eating and social skills, where new tastes and food combinations can be introduced in a safe environment and norms around use of cutlery and avoiding waste can be set. Social eating also provides an opportunity for relaxation that aids afternoon learning.  Alongside the immediate benefits, these things will also help shape future food and lifestyle choices. 

In terms of the wider school community, the experience in Scotland suggests that universal provision benefits all families including those with time or knowledge constraints, as well as financial ones. 

Universal provision can also provide local economic multipliers particularly if there is investment in building links with local businesses.  It can be a driver for high quality farming and fishing, enhancing animal welfare and supporting and creating new routes to market for food businesses. It can also be an opportunity to trial methods of procurement and production compliant with Net Zero and nature recovery ambitions.  

Mary Brennan argues that what is needed is an annual forensic analysis to understand how uFSM provision is contributing to other policy areas in Scotland but this has not so far happened. 

It is essential to develop systems thinking capacity to understand how school food can deliver across different policy areas 

One of the biggest challenges in Scotland has been getting Ministers and officials to understand the operational realities and challenges that school catering staff face. The school canteen is a relentless and demanding operational environment and staff are usually not employed outside term-time or food preparation/supervision/clean-up times. There is therefore no time or space for strategic thinking to review, reflect or plan. The same is often true with local authorities with very little resource, which can lead to paralysis and a default to doing things the way they have always been done rather than trying to maximise or diversify policy outcomes. 

In Scotland, Assist FM argued for investment in management as well as frontline staff to aid the transition to uFSM in recognition of the need for this thinking and planning time and to ensure they weren’t spreading already stretched management staff too thinly. 

It is not just the food that should be valued  

The key role of dining staff in school has also been recognised in Scottish research. The extent of many of the benefits of social eating in schools – particularly around the amount of time spent eating (and therefore producing less waste) – was found to correlate directly with the amount of dining supervision available, yet the hours and numbers of dining supervisors are often vulnerable to cost-cutting.  

This links to another obstacle in expanding uFSM provision – the recruitment and retention of supervision and catering staff. Scottish research suggests that recognising more overtly the insights and contributions from these staff can expedite successful uFSM implementation, through staff development and providing space for learning and professionalisation of school catering. Attendees agreed that the whole food sector – from farming to catering – needs to be understood and promoted as a career path. 

Conclusions and next steps 

Implementing uFSM may involve complex trade-offs but there is also the potential for multiple co-benefits from a singular investment. In Wales this is a key opportunity to look at food through the lens of the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, incorporating net zero, nature recovery, equality, foundational economy and other aims. 

The clearest outcome from this session was that the ‘cost’ of school food needs to be reframed as an investment in better health and environmental outcomes and an investment in our learners (as opposed to just investing in the learning itself). We hear of redefining ‘value’ in public procurement to include the social and environmental value created from spending public money. With the publication of the Social Partnerships and Public Procurement Bill this shift should now be at the forefront of government’s mind. The provision of uFSM is an opportunity to put this into practise. 

Future sessions will consider how this investment can be made and how other operational challenges raised but not included in this piece can be resolved. These include how to increase flexibility within menu design to be able to cope rising food prices, uncertainty of supply and other ‘what if..’ scenarios; the challenges faced by schools with insufficient or no catering facilities; and how this policy aim can also support a more diverse and progressive food system in Wales, including links with the Community Food Strategy. 

If you would like to join future roundtables or have ideas or comments around this or future themes, please contact Clare Sain-ley-Berry clare@cynnalcymru.com. 

Grow your Own – The Hywel Dda approach to building local skills and well-being

In 2019 Hywel Dda University Health Board took a bold step to start an Apprenticeship Academy. This was partly in response to the increasing financial costs of using agency staff to make up for the shortfall in employed Adult General Nurses. It was also, however, in recognition of the opportunity that the University Health Board had, as an anchor institution, to improve opportunities and well-being in its local area.

Recruitment had been a long-standing problem. There is no nursing college in the local area and those that have studied elsewhere, and begun to make lives for themselves, often prefer to find work in the same place. Recruitment from within local communities has therefore been a challenge, as even those students originating from the UHB area may not always choose to return once qualified. The UHB was also conscious that recruitment practices that simply attracted staff from other health board areas would just create problems elsewhere. A programme that could nurture and develop skills amongst the existing local population was seen as a more pragmatic, sustainable approach and one that would fit with the UHB’s values. The Apprenticeship Academy was therefore born.

The initial apprenticeship programme included two pathways: Healthcare and Patient Experience. This has already expanded to include many other pathways including areas as diverse as Engineering and Corporate Governance. The Healthcare Apprentice Programme, however, which can develop individuals from entry level to Nurse registration within seven years, remains its flagship. Its aim is to develop a future nursing workforce through targeted skills development, working with local employment organisations, educational institutions and youth organisations to promote and tailor apprenticeship opportunities. 

The establishment of the Academy has, of course, faced challenges, not least in the unprecedented number of applications and onboarding of apprentices. In 2021 alone there were over 600 applicants, with only 40 places on offer. The high standard of applicants, however, did provide the UHB with confidence to increase the places on offer to 57.

A secondary challenge was integrating the apprenticeship programme within the culture and working practices of a large, established workforce. To help navigate this, a ‘Reverse Mentoring’ scheme was put in place that has allowed apprentices to share their experiences and ideas through providing mentoring and guidance to members of the Health Board. Apprentices were also invited, with the Board’s support, to present at the 2021 Nursing and Midwifery conference, in recognition of their achievements. This gave members of the apprenticeship programme another opportunity to share learning first hand with those that might also find themselves working with apprentices, or even be thinking of starting programmes themselves.

One example of the value that this programme has brought was highlighted when the Academy Team was able to offer additional support to the Directors responsible for the staffing and implementation of Mass Vaccination Centres throughout the Health Board area.  Andrew Cavill (Job title) explains that the 2021 apprentices “have stepped up and stepped forward to support the vaccination effort, undertaking additional training to offer immunisation and administrative support to patients across all counties”.

The programme has also contributed to wider and longer-term benefits. The Academy has a principle of not taking on an apprentice unless there is a job available for that person at the end of the apprenticeship programme. This has encouraged services to look at their future staffing needs and start to plan early for how these can be met. On this basis, 100 apprentices have already been taken on with a pledge to deliver 1,000 apprenticeships by 2030 – an ambition that will not only grow local job opportunities but help to provide better health care, training, skills and well-being in the local foundational economy.

Bocs Bwyd – an inclusive career pathway in the Vale of Glamorgan

Bocs Bwyd is a catering enterprise, run by Ysgol Y Deri in collaboration with the construction industry. Funded by the Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund, it provides a vocational learning environment for learners with Additional Learning Needs (ALN), enabling Ysgol Y Deri to develop the Bocs Bwyd Traineeship. The project aims to develop skills, confidence and demonstrate the ability of young people with special needs, helping them develop independence and enter the workforce, from which they are often excluded.

Ysgol Y Deri is the special education school for the Vale of Glamorgan, working with students aged 3-19 across a full spectrum of conditions including higher functioning autism, emotional, behavioural and mental health issues and profound multiple learning difficulties.

The school focusses on catering as a vocational pathway to learners aged 14-19 who have the potential to be economically active. Replicating the work environment, the school has a professional spec training kitchen and on-site barista style coffee shop. Many students leave with industry recognised qualifications in Food Hygiene and Entry Level and Level 1 catering and employability qualifications including BTEC. The school also provides work experience opportunities in catering settings such as Costa and Farmhouse Inns.

However, despite vocational experience and qualifications, many students struggle to meet the entry requirements to access catering courses at college due to their academic abilities. There are also few opportunities for them to receive in-work support from potential employers so that they can engage in the career pathways that Ysgol Y Deri has prepared them for. Thus, despite gaining the competencies to engage in work, many students leave without the prospect of finding real jobs.

In order to address this difficult situation, Ysgol Y Deri applied to Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund and received funding for their Bocs Bwyd project.

Bocs Bwyd is a catering kitchen, launched in 2019, servicing two new school build sites in Barry, both of which are part of the Vale of Glamorgan’s 21st Century Schools programme. Other than a catering manager, the kitchen is wholly staffed by Ysgol Y Deri pupils and their support staff.

With the support of the construction companies Morgan Sindall and Bouygues UK, the physical kitchen was assembled; Morgan Sindall providing the shipping container and Bouygues relocating it at an agreed handover time. Challenge Fund monies were used to support additional staff.

After a delay due to COVID, Bocs Bwyd started service on site in September 2020, in line with Welsh Government’s and Ysgol Y Deri’s COVID secure working. The kitchen is divided into four work stations, allowing pupils to develop skills from service through to prep and wash up, with a focus on quality, value and nutrition.

Bocs Bwyd was something new and innovative for Ysgol Y Deri; a sustainable catering enterprise run by, but with its own separate identity from, the school. This allowed Ysgol Y Deri to create an authentic work environment for learners, who were supported and valued as co-workers, rather than students. In this vein, it was also important for the Bocs Bwyd team that Bocs Bwyd was seen as just a café, rather than a ‘special needs café’. 

Bocs Bwyd has enabled Ysgol Y Deri to address the issue that many pupils cannot access college or employment after leaving them in ways that they could not previously. Areas of focus were developing The Bocs Bwyd Traineeship and to help pupils and their families believe in their ability to enter the workforce. 

The Bocs Bwyd Traineeship combines Essential Skills Qualifications in Literacy and Numeracy linked to Catering and Employability Awards at Entry Level / Level 1 leading to a Certificate size award overall plus City and Guilds Food Hygiene Level 1 or 2. The Traineeship also includes a guaranteed 120 hours minimum work placement at Bocs Bwyd.

Bocs Bwyd has been key in the school developing the traineeship – it not only allows the school to provide a guaranteed work placement, it also allows them to tailor the placement to ensure learners get to experience all aspects of catering and provides additional support where needed. This is a step change to the work experience that Ysgol Y Deri has historically been able to provide to students.

Another benefit of the traineeship is that it prepares and qualifies students for work in catering at a higher level than Ysgol Y Deri has been able to offer previously. Usually, young people working at Entry Level cannot access Foundation Apprenticeships with its  5 GCSE entry requirement . However, the Bocs Bwyd Traineeship provides a unique way to achieve similar vocational qualifications for young people but working at Entry Level, something Ysgol Y Deri has not been able to offer as a package before. 8 learners have now completed the Traineeship. Charlie, a trainee at Bocs Bwyd has been accepted onto a catering course at Bridgend College starting September 2021 while others have also been able to secure places on specialist courses at Level 1 in industry sectors other than  Catering. All have developed a belief in a pathway into paid work which previously  they thought impossible.

The authentic work environment of Bocs Bwyd allowed pupils to develop and showcase their talents out in the world to paying customers. This, and the supported employment model (where learners are supported and valued as co-workers, rather than students) provided a space where pupils could develop their self-belief and confidence in entering the workforce. This was bolstered by Job Coaching, including Person Centred Planning creating a vocational profile and pathways into work.

The project’s success in this area can be seen in the views of pupils, parents and carers.   

“Working in Bocs Bwyd, has increased my confidence when participating in a work environment and improved my interpersonal skills.” Sam, Bocs Bwyd trainee.

All carers and parents strongly agreed that their child became more confident as a result of participating in Bocs Bwyd and agreed or strongly agreed that their child is more hopeful about their future and is positive about getting paid work. Parents and carers also agreed or strongly agreed that they too were more hopeful about their child’s future and more confident of them getting paid work.

Notwithstanding the successes of the project, its innovative nature means some challenges remain unresolved and require more work into the future.

Some of these are governance and constitutional problems around a school running a business. It was important for Bocs Bwyd to be separate from the school for educational reasons outlined above and to create a model whereby Ysgol Y Deri could operate a project such as Bocs Bwyd on a cost recovery basis. However, schools trading is problematic in Wales due to the Welsh schooling system not being academised as in England, where it is easier for schools to convert to being an academy which have less stringent regulations regarding trading. Ysgol Y Deri are supportive of the non-academisation of Welsh schools, however it makes a school running a business quite difficult.

Working with Social Firms Wales, Ysgol Y Deri developed a constitution to run Bocs Bwyd as a Social Firm (enterprise) which functions like a CIC, but instead of being registered at Companies House, is overseen by a constituted committee and governed by robust rules within the school. The long term viability of this solution is yet to be seen as there are questions around liability for the committee which are being addressed by Vale of Glamorgan Council.  If the model does work however, it provides a new vocational education model (which could be used wider than catering) which partly or wholly funds its costs. Currently, the school ‘subsidises’ Bocs Bwyd through back office support and provides teaching staff. However, the team would like to move to costs being covered through grant aid or a service level agreement, with the Social Firm structure allowing Bocs Bwyd to apply for a wider range of grants compared with a school.

Another challenge is the growth and sustainability of the project into the future. The project is running, however project lead Sue Williams recognises that often getting such projects off the ground is done “on a wing and a prayer”, and wants the project to remain functional and to avoid burn out of the project team. For 6 months Bocs Bwyd ran two sites in parallel, straining the team but demonstrating the ability for the project to grow.

Bocs Bwyd are interested in two aspects of their growth; developing a sustainable business model  and the educational impact. Commercially, they wish to become a mainstay of the local construction industry, providing food for construction workers and becoming a material part of the conversation around social values in the sector. Educationally, the team are exploring if they could host self-funded placements and whether they could provide work placements to smaller special schools enabling them to develop their own traineeships or apprenticeships.

Finally, despite the additional skills and qualifications, the route for Bocs Bwyd pupils into work or further education is still not always clear. Sue explains that after leaving Bocs Bwyd, learners will have all the skills they need for the catering industry, the issue being that they require a little extra support in the workplace that the vast majority of employers do not provide. The team are thus exploring partnering with a big public sector organisation, working with them to upskill their ability to support those with special needs and perhaps providing a job coach in return for committing to taking on a certain number of Bocs Bwyd pupils as staff. Bocs Bwyd are also exploring funding a continuation programme for NEETS and eligibility for the DWP Kickstart programme, which pupils are not currently eligible for as they will not have been on Universal Credit when they leave Ysgol Y Deri.

These challenges however do not take away the real positive impact on learners. Sue says she was “blown away by the change in mindset of the young people we had joining us”. A mindset change where work became possible, created in a public facing environment which challenged learners, and in doing so, allowed them to grow.

From September 2021, Ysgol Y Deri are planning to create a designated Bocs Bwyd class with teaching and support staff funded by the school’s core budget. Additional costs from operating the business will be recouped through trading activity.

Projected 12 month trading figures to the end of August 2021 suggest a gross profit on sales – meeting the additional operational costs of running a catering enterprise for Ysgol Y Deri. In collaboration with the private sector, Ysgol Y Deri have created a financially sustainable business providing a unique and holistic vocational learning environment for their pupils .  This in turn has boosted their drive and belief in their ability to work and equipped them with a higher level of skill and qualification than the school has been able to previously.

Foundational Economy Community of Practice

The foundational economy community of practice started in July 2020 as part of the Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund. Its aim was to share learning and innovation, build relationships and encourage collaboration.

The Challenge Fund provided support to projects looking to try out new ways to address challenges – some emerging, some age-old – faced by foundational economy businesses or those relying on their services.

These included:

  • the recruitment, retention and skills of the workforce
  • the delivery structures and design of services
  • the recruitment, retention and skills of the workforce
  • the delivery structures and design of services

The aim was to explore a range of solutions that could potentially generate viable, adaptable models that could be scaled up and spread to strengthen local economies and community wealth-building.

Staring in 2019 with an initial 52 projects, it was always expected that some experiments would not succeed and conditions were made even more challenging by the impact of the pandemic.

A community of practice was also however put in place to help capture some of the rich learning and insights generated by all the projects taking part. The examples in the case studies below give a flavour of the projects supported by the Fund – their successes, challenges and above all learning, about how best the foundational economy in their area or sector can be supported. The Fund closed in March 2021 but, at the request of members, the community of practice has continued. Its role continues to be to share learning, encourage and expand dialogue and facilitate collaboration.

If you would be interested in joining a session or finding out more, please contact clare@cynnalcymru.com.

Scroll down to read some of our case studies.

United Welsh: “Change happens at the speed of trust.”

United Welsh, Linc Cymru, Melin Homes and Tai Calon are four housing associations that manage all the social housing in Blaenau Gwent – equating to 20% of all the county’s homes. In 2019 they embarked on a project to explore if the power of their collective spend could better benefit the communities around them.

Previous collaboration had identified building and maintenance supply chains as a key area where coordinated spend could be targeted to help support the local economy, with opportunities for training and skills development, business growth and local job creation. However mapping these supply chains, and making links between the four organisations’ budgets and workplans, required careful analysis and dedicated resource, something that was difficult to find amongst existing demands and priorities.

The partners applied to Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund to help accelerate this collaboration and a grant was awarded in recognition of the potential impact that this could have on the area’s foundational economy businesses. The approved project would map the supply chains across the four organisations, identify key opportunities to strengthen local spend and suppliers, build better relations with social enterprises and SMEs and connect them with existing business support networks.

One of the first key steps was gathering and collating supply chain data over the four partners. To do this, the planned maintenance budgets of all four housing associations were compiled and combined, producing a 10 year forward work programme worth £90 million. This was then used to start conversations with local businesses about how this work could be delivered locally, keeping as much of the spend in Blaenau Gwent as possible.

This sort of intelligence, about the value and scale of future potential work opportunities, is of huge benefit to business planning, particularly for smaller or more specialist suppliers. Knowledge of future opportunities can be critical in deciding for example whether to take on an extra staff member or to invest in training for a new type of installation or product.

Another unanticipated benefit of the project has been its potential to reduce the ‘boom and bust’ cycle of work that the partners were sometimes inadvertently creating. For example, rather than one housing association having an SME replace all their windows one season (boom) and then there being no similar work for months until another housing association did the same (bust), the housing associations can now coordinate programmes of work to ensure that a steady pipeline is always available.

As well as collating maintenance and supply chain data, the partners also shared ideas and existing programmes in place to support local community organisations. This led to a further combining of the partners’ resources – this time to support community spaces and initiatives better through the disruption that COVID-19 has caused. Working with CLES, The Wales Cooperative Centre and The Federation of Small Business, the project has also worked to set up a Social Enterprise Network in Blaenau Gwent, that they hope will continue well beyond the grant timeframe.

As well as achieving the original objectives of the Challenge Fund application, the closer partnership working that the grant enabled is influencing wider work also.

Like many housing associations, those in Blaenau Gwent are working on plans to decarbonise homes through retrofitting. Although this will be challenging, and means that maintenance plans already in place will need to change, it also provides another significant opportunity to support new, well paid, green jobs in the area.

The partnership believes that the new collaborative ways of working established during the Challenge Fund project will enable them to plan and deliver retrofitting in ways that – because of its scale – could deliver even greater benefits than the original project. The pooling of budgets and work programmes could even go so far as to help catalyse a new local retrofit industry through being able to guarantee a steady pipeline of work, geared towards smaller local suppliers.

This will include using the relationships built during the project with local colleges, SMEs and academia to explore how any training and skills gaps for the planned works can be addressed to ensure that work can be delivered locally. This could be an important contribution to building up the skills base in the county, which like many other post-industrial areas, has higher unemployment levels than the national average.

The partners are starting by retrofitting 200 homes, funded by a separate Welsh Government grant, which will be a source of learning about how to retrofit in a way that works for the people living in the homes and delivers the works through local SMEs.

An important spin-off to complement this work is the Blaenau Gwent Climate Assembly – the first of its kind in Wales. This citizen’s assembly will allow local residents to help shape the decarbonisation plans not only of the four housing associations but also Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council and other local decision makers, ensuring that they align with the aspirations of local people. It forms one part of the new community engagement approach that the 4 housing associations have developed during the project.

Steve Cranston, The Foundational Economy Lead from United Welsh, believes that the initial project has therefore expanded into something much wider that will have a long-term influence on the way the partners work together, allowing them to better serve their residents and the local communities around them.

Steve has two key insights for others doing this kind of work. In building collaboration across organisations, he cites trust as a key driver, explaining that “change happens at the speed of trust”. How to develop trust? Openness, transparency and listening.

Another insight is maintaining focus on what the foundational economy is about – people. Providing people with good services backed up by good jobs. Steve explains how having regular conversations with local people and communities and focusing on listening to their views is vital to ensure resources really go to where it’s needed.

Steve says the best part of being part of the Foundational Economy Challenge Fund has been “having time to build trusted relationships with partner organisations. Trust is the most important currency and we have opened up opportunities for long term mutual benefit.”

Torfaen Council: Supporting the foundations

Like other post-industrial areas, the town of Pontypool suffers from empty shop units, run-down high streets and above average unemployment. These problems have become common following the decline of traditional industry but have been exacerbated in Pontypool by other factors, such as organisations or people with no connection to the area buying up commercial property as investments.

The Council recognised that many people in the town had small businesses, or wanted to start one, and set up shop in the town. Efforts were often hampered however by a lack of appropriate support and a disconnect between what was offered by national programmes and grants and what small, often micro-, businesses needed on the ground.  

The Council applied to Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund to help rectify this and put in place a pilot providing place-based, hyper-local support to small businesses. This included mentoring, test-trading opportunities, meantime space, training, small start-up grants and marketing support.

The pilot project, Foundational Economy Torfaen (FET), began in February 2020 from a new ‘work-hub’ in Pontypool Indoor Market. Despite the impact of Covid it has already contributed to visible positive change in the area.

FET Project Officer Alyson Jones believes that the only way that nurturing and catalyst support can be offered to these small ventures is by really seeking to listen and understand their issues. Her first step was to be proactive in phoning businesses to get a flavour of the community and the support that was needed.

This led to a range of support measure ranging from the ambitious and complex – such as exploring the development of a local procurement system – to the basic but absolutely essential – such as signposting sole traders to the right Council websites.

An early challenge that was identified was the high shop unit rents often commanded by out of town landlords with little motivation to lower prices or to split units into more affordable spaces. Whilst local landlords were more accommodating, FET also provided another solution through offering space in the indoor market at low-cost (£5/day) or, during COVID, no-cost rates.  This proved crucial in enabling several innovative start-ups, such as Woolfall’s 3D Printing, to get off the ground. 

The project has also provided bespoke, one-to-one mentoring to help businesses navigate systems and processes and to build the confidence and capacity to grow.

From support with accessing finance or sourcing local accountants to provide free consultations; to help with business plans, furlough or diversification in response to Covid, FET has sought to provide a tailored approach for each beneficiary. Focussed on ‘making the service work for people’, this has included phone calls to those who are digitally excluded and mentoring at a distance for those who cannot afford to travel or are self-isolating.

A huge range of social media events on marketing, local procurement and Business Doctor sessions have also been organised.

One beneficiary of FET support is High Street Fitness, a community interest well-being and fitness organisation. Set up by a group of qualified trainers and a doctor, it provides a low-cost gym to the community (discounts for those out of work) as well as mental health support and a training and qualifications programme.

FET supported High Street Fitness with start-up mentoring, working with Social Business Wales to provide specific, targeted support in developing a social business.  FET further assisted in financial solutions necessary to fund setup, including finding them space in a unit New Look had recently vacated, overcoming potential challenges with the Local Development Plan which was focussed on retail, and linking the owners up with the Local Education Authority and the NHS, allowing them to take social prescriptions. High Street Fitness is now able to provide a much-needed community resource in the centre of town and is looking to develop a full NVQ scheme that could support more foundational economy skills and jobs in the area in future.

With an eye on this broader picture, FET has also worked with local anchor organisations to help develop local supply chains and explore local procurement, particularly in areas such as decarbonisation where future need is guaranteed.

Work with RSL Bron Afon identified skills gaps as a key issue and FET is now working with the University of South Wales to explore how these could be filled to enable local manufacture of solar panels and heat pumps.   

13 months in to the project, Alyson – FET’s sole dedicated member of staff –  has spoken to over 375 local businesses and worked with a wide range of cross-sector partners. Alyson believes it is the project’s hyper-local, human approach that is the root of its success.

You have to build up relationships and trust with people, you have to become a trusted adviser. It is also not enough to provide support at a national level if local business does not have the confidence or knowhow to access it.” she explains.

Providing this level of human contact – Alyson also phones business regularly just to check in, whether or not the business has flagged they need support – demands enormous dedication and can exert an emotional toll.

One example was hearing from a sole trader who had set up a mobile vehicle-repair business in 2019 to ‘take herself off Universal Credit and make a better life for herself and her children’. As a non VAT- registered start-up without premises, she fell through the gaps in Covid-related support and was left with the stark choice of asking Alyson ‘Do I feed my children or pay my supplier?’

This experience was shared and escalated up through the Council to Welsh Government, adding to the calls for micro-businesses – the lifeblood of Pontypool and many other towns in the county – to not be forgotten in the Covid response.  This trader eventually received support with FET’s help some 3 months after making initial contact.

This example highlights another crucial, intermediary role played by such projects in supporting local livelihoods and the families that depend on them. For Alyson, this – and seeing the ‘massive difference that FET has made’ –  has been the most rewarding aspect of being part of the Challenge Fund community.

The feedback from local business has been amazing – people are so appreciative they have someone physically there they can speak to and who they can get to know.” Alyson explains. It seems the local person is key, the human element providing confidence which a website cannot.

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Flintshire County Council: Investing in ‘micro-care’ to strengthen the foundational economy

Like other counties in Wales, Flintshire faces the interlinked challenges of austerity, an ageing population and a care sector struggling to meet the rising demand for care. With help from Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund, Flintshire County Council has been piloting the development of community-based ‘micro-care’ to help grow the supply of care; create well-paid sustainable jobs; expand choice and deliver high quality care services.

The Covid pandemic has highlighted the importance of social care to vulnerable people and yet, compared to other professions with similar skills requirements, this work is often poorly paid, with challenging conditions and limited opportunities for training and progression. The recruitment and retention of care staff therefore is a challenge, particularly in rural areas.

The Council’s strategic review of the care sector in Flintshire in 2019 highlighted ‘micro-care’ as a potential solution to some of these challenges. Micro-care is defined as care delivered either by a small team or an individual, to a small number of clients, usually at a localised level.

Micro-care offers a number of benefits to both carers and those receiving care services. The smaller caseload allows micro providers to deliver a more personalised, flexible service to those in their care. It also removes the need for lengthy travel times between multiple clients – for which carers are often not paid – making the work less stressful and more financially rewarding.  

Micro-provision also offers an opportunity for self-employment, potentially attracting those wishing to work for themselves – such as informal carers or those in part-time employment- who may not otherwise have thought about joining the care profession.

The Council therefore approached the Challenge Fund to support a 2- year pilot project to grow and support micro-care in Flintshire, with the aim of increasing the number of carers in the county and providing sustainable, well-paid, local jobs to help meet rising care demand.

Funding was awarded in 2019 for a project to directly support micro-carers to start-up, with advice, seed funding and marketing. The grant also enabled the Council to develop networks of micro-providers and to create structures that ensure their practice is safe, legal and high-quality and which will enable the local authority to directly commission services from them.

Micro-care at this scale is new for Wales. While Flintshire County Council was influenced by work undertaken in Somerset and elsewhere in England to support micro-care, because there are differences in legislation and models of care between England and Wales, it was necessary to build a model from scratch that suited the circumstances in Flintshire.

Rob Loudon, one of 2 Micro-Care Development Officers at Flintshire County Council, explains: “In England there is a greater percentage of people needing care who receive a Direct Payment to purchase their own care. In Wales more care is provided by local authority commissioning care agencies. This has influenced how our model has been developed”

The key aim of the Flintshire project was to expand the overall supply of care available. Fundamental to achieving this was to find a way of developing the micro-care market without jeopardising the existing supply of care provided by care agencies and Personal Assistants (directly employed by people in receipt of a Direct Payment).

In England there was evidence to suggest that the growth in micro-care enterprises was creating supply issues for the care agency and personal assistant sectors, as significant numbers of people left those sectors to become micro-carers. This may have been due to a number of factors including a desire to “be your own boss” but also due to significantly higher hourly rates that micro providers were able to charge. 

To address this challenge, and to help ensure the best possible outcomes for all stakeholders, the Council decided to take a pro-active role in micro-care commissioning, setting hourly rates for micro- providers providing care either via a direct payment or a direct commissioning arrangement.

The rate decided upon was £12.63 per hour for 2020/21– well above the minimum rate of £9.50 per hour advocated by the Living Wage Foundation – sufficient to attract new people to the care profession without micro-care jobs being taken exclusively by people already working in other parts of the care sector. Council control over the rates for charging out services also prevented ‘over-charging’ compared to traditional services. This proved a delicate balance between ensuring that micro-carers were paid fairly for their work and not creating such a disparity with wages in other parts of the care sector that there was a mass exodus from one to the other.

A combination of all these measures has contributed to the creation of 14 micro-care businesses in Flintshire, 9 more than initially anticipated. An additional 6 are also in the process of being set up as a direct result of the Challenge Fund project.

As of yet, none of the staff for these new micro-providers have come from other care agencies and, although it is early days for these ventures, Rob believes this is a great sign that the active role the Council is taking in micro-care is bringing more people into the care sector overall.

This in turn is having a positive impact on the people needing care services. As Rob explains “the bottom line is that if we didn’t have these micro-carers in Flintshire there would still be a number of people potentially on our waiting list for care.” In other words, micro-carers have been able to fill the gaps, particularly in rural areas, where care agencies did not have capacity to meet care demands.

The Council is rightly proud that the development of these new enterprises has not only attracted more people to the care profession but has done so in a way that is building local economic resilience through increasing well-paid and sustainable employment options, particularly in rural areas.

Although the project has laid a firm foundation for micro-care in Flintshire, the Council is still navigating challenges in the system – one being the issue of cover if a micro-carer is absent, for example through illness or holiday.

Currently legislation limits the number of people that micro-providers can care for before they need to register with Care Inspectorate Wales as a domiciliary care agency – a step that many small providers are not set up to do. This makes it more difficult for micro-carers to ‘cover’ each other if the number of people that will receive their services, even temporarily, exceeds the registration threshold.

Helping micro businesses develop robust contingency plans is therefore a challenge but one that the Flintshire team are determined to solve through continued cooperation and dialogue with stakeholders.

As the pilot draws to a close, Rob is confident that work will continue to grow micro-care in Flintshire, potentially serving as a model for sustainable foundational economy employment that can be adapted and replicated across Wales.

ELITE Paper Solutions: Building bridges between the public sector and social enterprise

ELITE Paper Solutions is a social enterprise based in Merthyr Tydfil, specialising in document management storage and data shredding.  

As illustrated by its acronym – Equality Linked Into Training and Employment – ELITE aims to provide a fully inclusive workplace to support those traditionally furthest from the labour market, for example due to disability, health conditions or long-term unemployment, to gain skills and jobs. 

ELITE received a Challenge Fund grant to further develop its model to a point where it could deliver larger-scale contracts, which would in turn support more jobs, skills and volunteering opportunities. Part of this included influencing public sector stakeholders to change their procurement practices to allow them to place more contracts with social enterprises. 

The grant was invested in capital and revenue items to grow the team and build organisational capacity. This included an Employment Advisor to work with referral agencies and other support bodies to help individuals access and progress through ELITE’s training and work opportunities. 

These investments not only helped ELITE win 3 large public sector contracts but enabled it to respond quickly to the changing needs of its customers brought about by the Covid pandemic, increasing its revenue by £90,000 compared with the previous year. 

For example, one contract due to start on the cusp of lockdown increased its receptacles order by one third due to a pivot in ways of working which produced far more paper waste than first planned for. With its additional capacity ELITE was able to supply the extra collection bins required. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the move for many organisations away from the office environment, has led to a surge in demand for physical information to be made available online. The rapid rise in uptake of its confidential scanning services has allowed ELITE to hire nine new members of staff to assist its scanning section. 

ELITE is also proud to have increased other contracts, including for the NHS, in response to increased demand for the archive storage service that it provides, to safely store important records. 

Alongside its increasing commercial success, the grant has enabled ELITE to further develop its core activity of supporting those traditionally excluded from skills and work opportunities. Since 2015, the social enterprise section of the Charity, has worked with over 250 people, with a disability or disadvantage and believes that there is a job for everyone, regardless of their support need. 

As an example, ELITE CEO Andrea Wayman says, “Our scanning section is a fantastic place for people who are high functioning on the autistic spectrum, due to the need for attention to detail, supporting them to develop their social skills, which may have been a barrier to employment in the past. Their development has created a tremendous team.” 

In this regard, the Challenge Fund project also serves as a demonstrator of the role that social enterprises can play in the foundational economy. Andrea believes that the ELITE model can be adopted by any workplace, including larger SMEs and the Public Sector, to enable more diverse workforces, aid local economies and increase understanding of the contributions that can be made by people who are often overlooked.  

To support Challenge Fund grantees, Welsh Government also operates a community of practice to bring projects together to share learning and challenges. Andrea believes this has been a  

huge benefit for relationship building that has led to multiple new referrals as well as a new client. This has also been an opportunity for ELITE to speak as ‘the voice of social purchasing’ and positively inform and influence those who sit on the purchasing side of procurement. 

Speaking about the Community of Practice, Andrea shares, “I didn’t realise the bonus that the communities of practice would bring to us. I just thought it was something that had been thought about afterwards, whereas it’s been as important to us as having the grant itself.” 

As ELITE looks forward, its goals are to continue growing and promoting its model. This includes gaining more opportunities within the public sector – and paving the way for other social enterprises to follow suit. 

Practice Solutions: A holistic approach to community resilience in Rhondda Cynon Taf

Practice Solutions is a training and consultancy organisation, providing flexible, out-of-the-box support for companies within the social care, health, voluntary and private sectors. Its aim is to help organisations to nurture well-being in their workforces and communities through implementing meaningful and sustainable change.  

Having worked with many social care businesses since 1999, Practice Solutions recognised that smaller providers often struggled with ‘back office’ functions including finance, HR, marketing or tendering. In turn this reduced their ability to secure the larger-scale contracts they needed to grow. 

This led to the idea of a localised support network for these businesses that could increase their capacity to deliver services and to win larger scale bids through providing shared ‘back-office’ functions as well as advice, support and relationship-brokering, particularly with the public sector. 

This was felt to be particularly important for those working in social care, with SMEs and micro-firms already under growing pressure and a national campaign to recruit 20,000 more carers in Wales by 2030. 

If successful, the model could then be rolled out to all those other foundational businesses that supported these, and other, service providers.  

In 2019, the Practice Solutions team received a Welsh Government Foundational Economy Challenge Fund grant to test the appetite for such a model with businesses in Rhondda Cynon Taf.     

Initially focused around social care providers, the Connect4SuccessRCT project aimed to deliver a systems-wide approach to ensure that the rising care needs of the future could be met by boosting both the local care sector, and the wider foundational economy. 

The project would provide ‘back office’ support to local care sector SME’s including staff recruitment and retention advice, training to those working with vulnerable people, finance and marketing assistance and advice on tendering.  

It would also work to connect local firms with public bodies to try to ensure that more public sector contracts were awarded locally, instead of to large corporate providers.  This would include breaking down barriers to successful tendering and raising the profile of local providers to public sector audiences. 

Although the project started well with successful outreach to all parties, the impact of COVID-19 inevitably limited the ability of social care providers and public bodies to engage with it. 

In response, the project increased its focus on other foundational economy businesses that, by contributing to local community resilience, also support health and social care agendas and the community at large.  

A key tool was the Connect4SuccessRCT website that aims to allow local providers to market their services and also potentially to collaborate in order to secure and deliver large-scale public sector contracts that would otherwise be out of reach. 

To date, 54 local organisations have signed up including a radio station, cleaners, training organisations, builders, manufacturers and distributers of PPE. 

Although the pandemic caused the project’s primary audience to change, Connect4SuccessRCT has not lost sight of its original aims to support the health and care sectors nor its holistic outlook. 

 Dafydd Thomas, the project lead at Practice Solutions, explains: 

 “The model works on the basis of providing co-benefits to all parties.  Businesses are not only given support on how to tender, marketing tips, and other business advice when they join Connect4SuccessRCT but we’ll also be providing training so that their employees will be able to recognise when someone might be vulnerable, or at risk. This helps add to that business’ social impact and will ultimately help public services to intervene before the issues becomes more serious and costly.” 

This additional ‘early-warning system’ by local firms that have daily contact with large numbers of the county’s residents can not only help reduce preventable hospitalisations and suffering but it also enables the responsibility of care to be shared and grown throughout the community. 

Practice Solutions is also still working to bridge the gap between the public sector and service providers to enable greater collaboration and more public funds to be channeled through the local economy. 

Staff have been liaising with procurement officers and local authorities to understand all the elements that businesses need to successfully secure contracts. This includes updated policies, certifications and information on upcoming work and means that businesses will be more prepared to go out and get contracts even when the initial Connect4Success pilot comes to an end in March 2021. 

This work has also captured some valuable insights into how the process of tendering can be made more accessible, particularly for those who have less experience or who may not be as digitally apt.  

Practice Solutions has been able to feed back this experience to Sell2Wales, Business Wales, Rhondda Cynon Taf Country Borough Council, and other local public services to help them understand the barriers that local suppliers face.   

Dafydd Thomas went on to say 

“One of the many things that the pandemic has taught us is that local services are only as good as their supply chain – think of the different challenges with supplying PPE. We want to see more local businesses supplying more services to the local public sector – providing more local jobs for people closer to home and ensuring that more public money is kept circulating at a local level.” 

The team is also building a directory of all businesses in Rhondda Cynon Taf which in time, will help the public sector procurement teams to search for specific skillsets and approach businesses that meet contract requirements.  

Although Practice Solutions believes that the pilot has proven successful, it has not been without challenges. Connections with partners were hard to forge during the peak months of the pandemic and in one case it had taken more than 9 months to just get a meeting with one of the target public bodies. Dafydd explains that “partners were simply not in a place where they could engage” despite the additional resource that projects like Connect4SuccessRCT can offer.  

Similarly, economic pressures meant that the long-term holistic outlook of the project did not appeal to some of the target SMEs and micro-firms, with businesses being much more interested in ‘help me get something now’ than what may be available in ‘some golden future.’” 

Despite these challenges, the project has proven flexible and responsive to local needs. Long-term, the organisation would like to adapt this model to become a formal membership co-operative and invite the community to be involved. In addition to the original aims of closer collaboration with the public sector, it would also connect local people with local, reputable businesses in property maintenance, transport or general support services. 

As well as helping boost the local economy, it is thought that this could particularly help the most vulnerable people in the community to live independently for longer, increasing individual well-being as well as further reducing the pressure on local health and social care providers. 

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