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A place that will drive economic and social recovery. In other words, a cathedral

8th May 2013

This week, Baroness Berridge and Mark Hoban MP, the Minister for Employment, will launch an entrepreneurial initiative intended to back new firms and create fresh jobs from what, at first sight, may be an unlikely location – a Cathedral of the Church of England. The Minister for Cities, Greg Clark MP, has pledged to be among those that first take part in a unique share offer being made from the same place. The hope of its founders is that from a small start their model will spread like wildfire across the nation’s other cathedrals and its largest mosques, synagogues, churches and temples. We want especially to find new ways to unlock the under-sweated property, financial, and knowledge assets of businesses and public service bodies beyond London too.

The Anglican Cathedral in Portsmouth had buildings that it was not using. I approached them and asked if they might possibly let them to a new social enterprise at a peppercorn rent to create a hub and a network for start-ups. The Dean and Chapter not only agreed, but chipped in a series of ideas that would improve my original concept suggesting a partnership for change. So while I knew something could be done for start-up and growth firms, the Cathedral and the Diocese’s excellent Council for Social Responsibility was aware that it was a meeting place for a variety of communities from the top end of business to the poorest of the poor. How could the two be matched?

And so the work began: Portsmouth University’s Business School said they wanted to get involved and for starters made two full MBA awards available to create a competition for 100% ‘Cathedral Innovation Centre Scholarships’. Accounting students helped out. The Royal Society of Arts came on board through their Catalyst scheme and the call went out to the RSA’s Fellows asking for help: Might any have the skills to mentor young and old entrepreneurs who are looking to launch a new business or a social venture response to need? Would any help as pro bono board members of growing firms looking for wisdom? Could others still consider investing or giving in other ways? The Church Urban Fund provided some seed funding . A vision emerged to unlock the potential of under-used property, the time, talents and treasure of ordinary citizens, people of the faith communities and people of good will and so create spaces where innovative new responses to economic and social needs could be moved forward.

When the Cathedral Innovation Centre (CIC) and movement opens on Tuesday, it will have cost £9000 to get off the ground. We have been told the nearest public sector equivalent could cost £2 million. The CIC will be a place where those wanting to launch a firm, or need an address, can move in and receive a bespoke package of support: That backing will be tailor-made and comprise free to cheap office space, pro-bono mentors, seed funding and help with contacts, marketing and finance.

One new member wants to launch a charity to help kids with real problems with their maths and literacy by harnessing the time of retired school teachers. Another is building a video games company while another still has plans when it comes to the health sector. New apprenticeships for those who will not get to university will be created immediately, along with leadership development opportunities at the highest level – in the hope of developing a socially responsible generation of managers as we recover from the worst features of the banking crisis. Jon Cruddas MP (Head of the Labour Party’s Policy Review) has agreed to contribute to one of the first seminars looking at such topics.

With fourteen desks, the Centre is small, but it will soon become the hub of something bigger: The Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth is making a building available for a second centre in central Southampton. And already there have been approaches from Derby and Cheshire, East Anglia and the North East as others look at their buildings and space and say: “we want some help to do that too”. That is why the CIC is not just about a single place, but the front end of a national social enterprise, charity and movement where those of good will find a new way to serve concretely, practically and innovatively. Using UK co-operative law, we are even inviting citizens nationwide to become members of the CIC by investing £75 or more in community shares in the venture. The civic dividend from such sums will be enormous. Thanks to the Treasury’s SEED scheme, we are hopeful that income tax payers who back the work will gain 50% relief on their support.
The basic aim of course is to help new firms, create jobs and enhance a fresh sense of civic duty and energy. It is to develop apprenticeships that make people employable, and to tease out and incubate fresh models so that the new Dysons, Traidcrafts, Bodyshops, John Lewis Partnerships and other ventures and causes for our times can emerge. But we also want to provoke a conversation about the future: What shape will the new civic settlement take? How will the businesses of the future take responsibility? In particular, how does one have conversations so that they have impact, rather than just producing press releases, conference bookings and worthy papers. In tough times, ideas must lead to new innovation and new institutions which make the economic and social difference – that make impact and not just noise.

The Cathedral Innovation Centre and movement hopes to be a new spark in the dark. We hope that others will join with us to build more of that same light. For now it is time for fresh hope to emerge. And in times of real struggle, a job is often the best expression of that hope.

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