Am Bratach No. 240
October 2011
editor@bratach.co.uk

 

Mission impossible?

Mandy Haggith looks at the pros and cons of a state-funded enterprise in Lochinver

The Lochinver Mission project has been at the heart of some heated debates in recent weeks, concerning how social and private enterprises can operate together in small communities.

Assynt already has many not-for-profit enterprises managing land, education, social care and transport. The latest to begin trading is Lochinver Mission Ltd, which is renting the former building of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, who sold it to Assynt Community Association after pulling out of Lochinver two years ago. It has received funding from the Big Lottery’s Village SOS scheme, LEADER and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The new Lochinver Mission will, when it is fully functioning, contain an aquatic interpretation centre and lobster hatchery, a community digital archive, a bunkhouse and a café. The café opened for business in late June, and the bunkhouse took its first guests in July.

Sharon Bartram, one of the directors of the Mission, said: “Now that we are actually open we still have obligations to the Big Lottery Fund to deliver certain outcomes. The digital archive is now ready for action and the next aspect we are working on is the marine centre. It is not all happening in the order we originally planned, due in part to our funders, but all of the things the community asked us to build into the mission will happen eventually. It’s not just going to be a visitor centre and a place for tourists. The mission’s business is about giving the community a place to come together.”

However, some believe that the mission café is in direct competition with other local catering businesses, and that by taking trade away from them it is hurting the local economy, rather than helping it. A local business owner said: “Instead of responding to a Village SOS situation they have created one and split the community in the process. Not only are they competing with existing provision they are undercutting it and using state funding to do so”.

A similar complaint has been made in the past about the village’s Visitor Centre sales of books and other merchandise, in competition with local shops. Potentially other accommodation providers could feel threatened by the competition from Glencanisp Lodge, owned by Assynt Foundation, hunting or fishing businesses could be aggrieved by community landowners taking people out to fish or stalk deer, and bus companies may be challenged by the new community transport initiative.

Should public funders grant aid social enterprises with similar functions to existing private businesses? A spokesperson for LEADER was adamant that one of the criteria they use to decide whether to fund a project is whether it will cause what they call “displacement” of business from existing companies. “Why would we invest public money in funding something if it was being satisfactorily delivered already?” she said. “We are bound by evidence of community need and community support.”

A spokesperson for the Big Lottery Village SOS scheme said only that “each funding programme has its own set of criteria which applications are judged against”.

What happens if a social enterprise is so successful that it takes custom away from other businesses to an unexpected extent? This seems to be happening with the mission, which has drawn customers in due to its exciting menu and affordable prices. The high quality of the café’s food is due to the talents of the catering manager, Peter Cullen. Sharon Bartram, said: “We are incredibly lucky to have Peter, who is not only a brilliant chef, he is also a fully qualified Scottish Vocational Qualifications trainer and assessor, so we are going to be able to provide local people with training in cooking and catering”.

Does the fact that the mission provides a training kitchen and thereby hopes to boost the catering trade in Assynt mean that its impact should be viewed differently by local businesses? Or is that just another aspect of unfair subsidy?

Sharon Bartram said: “I think the mission is one piece in a bigger picture. We have big questions to ask: what are we doing now to make living in Assynt a more viable proposition for the kids currently in school? What can we export out from here? How can we support new skilled jobs that are all-year round? That’s why the mission is making links with the University of Highlands and Islands, and looking at marine enterprises like the lobster hatchery. It’s about our generation trying to create opportunities for younger ones”.
The mission team argues that once the full range of functions is in operation, then it will start to have a noticeable impact on enterprise in the area — bringing more visitors to Assynt and creating jobs. Yet a local business owner said” “We stand to lose far more jobs because of their trading than they can ever create”.

Who’s right? Academics at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research have been commissioned by the Lottery to carry out research into the impacts of the Village SOS projects, as part of which many households in Assynt are being receiving questionnaires about the Lochinver Mission. The results will hopefully provide an objective assessment of its impacts. Until then the debate will no doubt continue.

^ LEADER is part of the Scotland Rural Development Programme. It is claimed that it is a “bottom-up” method of providing support for rural development through implementing local development strategies. In North West Sutherland it is led by the local authority.

 

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