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How to get investment at scale in social infrastructure: lessons from City Funds in Bristol

New publication, Making a Good Place by Caroline Slocock, Director of Civil Exchange, for the Early Action Task Force examines how local place-makers are investing in social infrastructure.  Bristol is one of the case study areas featured in the report and Chief Executive of Bristol & Bath Regional Capital CIC, Edward Rowberry is a guest contributor. 

How to get investment at scale in social infrastructure: lessons from City Funds in Bristol

City Funds is the first fund of this kind, localising both investment and grant and strategically directing that resource to areas of local need. The challenge now is not just for more funds like these to be established across the country, but to do so on the kind of scale which will lead to increased efficiencies for these local investors. Ultimately, there must be a much bigger scale of new investment to genuinely achieve the levelling up of disadvantaged areas.

We could not have established City Funds without the £5m of capital from Big Society Capital (BSC). This in turn helped us unlock £5m of investment from Bristol City Council as well as over £1.86m in grants from Access The Foundation for Social Investment, Power to Change, Bristol Community Health, and others.  BSC’s innovative approach has made it possible to invest in the priorities of local people, rather than in nationally determined goals. It has also made it possible for us to establish a fund which works across many areas, breaking free of the sector-led approach which often characterises national investment.  It is a break from the dominant, highly centralised model in Britain of setting national priorities and asking bidders to all queue up, with a ‘winner takes all, loser no thanks’ approach, and I’d like future initiatives to build on this and go even further if possible.

Working in this different way may mean less national control but it has been shown to add value.  Bristol & Bath Regional Capital CIC has been able to bring in additional local grants and financial assets to top up BSC’s investment.  We also bring to the table the considerable expertise and resources of local leaders and local people who know their community and are committed to improving it.  All of this makes national money go further and leads to it being better spent.

However, in a £5 billion social impact investment market in the UK, locally-led investment is still in its infancy. We need to see much more capital come into this space if we are going to reach a sustainable model that fully serves our local communities. And we need to see emerging local investors working together, sharing resources and insights where we can. I’d like to see national bodies supporting this first by engaging local leaders in the upfront design of new locally-managed funds and second by providing a central resource that supports these local funds with shared scale.

Credit Unions in Canada provide a potential model here. Similar in name to UK credit co-operatives, they are almost different things altogether. For example, Vancity in Vancouver has CA$26 billion worth of assets under management and over half a million customers (members). Collectively, these local financial institutions invest heavily into the well-being and prosperity of their community, for example in affordable housing. This scale is partly the result of a mutually-owned national infrastructure in the form of Central 1, which enables economies of scale through the sharing of resources and learnings . Could we achieve something similar here?

Edward Rowberry, Chief Executive of Bristol & Bath Regional Capital CIC and a former Co-Director of the Bristol City Office.

Read the full report from the Civil Exchange website here

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