Business support or self-employment for deprived areas?

What do you think:

  • Would more self-employment cut deprivation?
  • Would more accessible, inclusive self-employment support do better than “Business start-up” in deprived areas??
  • Would tailored self-employment + work support + improved health care reduce deprivation?

The Government has recently commissioned a review in to business start-ups in deprived areas – exactly what we have been delivering through our disability self-employment Work for Yourself programme for over seven years.  The vast majority of that time has been targeted on Bolsover District (54th most deprived area) and Chesterfield Borough (deprived but with slightly better ranking) in Derbyshire.

Some factors to bear in mind:

  • Deprived areas by their very nature tend to have communities with multiple disadvantages: poorer health, lower skills, more benefits dependency etc.  For example, Bolsover district has the fourth highest level of disabled people in the population of 326 English local authority areas (Census 2011), had in the order of about 3 Employment and Support/Incapacity Benefit claimants for each JobSeekers Allowance claimant, had nearly a third of the population with no qualifications.  Business start- up within such an environment would seem extremely difficult: many people with limited skills, no spare cash and health problems trying to sell goods and services to a market of fellow residents who also often lack any disposable income.
  • Difficult family circumstances was a frequent consequence of deprivation: family break-ups, caring responsibilities for children and/or disabled relatives, homes and households in flux rather than stable.
  • While self-employment is a recognisable concept for most, the terminology of “business” or “enterprise” is usually alien: “suits” with staff, premises and growth projection charts aren’t in keeping with their much more modest starting points.  Mainstream business start-up support (including New Enterprise Allowance) is already remote and hampered by just the language.
  • Start-up support has had a lamentable record of engaging disabled people with miniscule numbers amongst the former business Links’ clients and not enough has changed.    Advisers lack in-depth understanding of the issues of disadvantaged clients from deprived areas and delivery design doesn’t take account of their needs.  Support should be: non-judgemental of individual capability; not time-bound; offering one-to-one help rather than group events; tailoring information at the appropriate reading level: providing reasonable adjustments.
  • Business financial support has also been virtually unusable for many of our clients: even those with acceptable credit ratings were loathe to risk further debt; even the lowest level of loans were just too high; there was no possibility of the client being able to “match” the loan.  Most of our clients started their self-employment with just a few hundred pounds.  Small grants equating to perhaps a month’s benefits were taken up by some (but certainly not all) to cover basics such as insurance, equipment and leaflets.
  • Drop-out rates can be high amongst this client group.  Some will decide that self-employment isn’t for them – so it is essential that the service can effectively deliver them to other providers of employment support.  Others simply become uncontactable – either deliberately or from lives in transit.  But most drop-outs were due to recurring health issues: people feeling too unwell to continue, returning to hospital etc.  Hence close links with work-orientated health professionals and occupational health (such as the Fit for Work service) could improve success rates.

Increasing self-employment by the high proportions of disabled people within deprived areas would seem a pipe-dream in the face of all these negative factors.  But it can and does happen – and mainly driven by the motivation of the people themselves (plus good delivery):

  • Demand for self-employment support was high: over three years we received over 500 contacts from local disabled people and more from further afield responded when clients were featured by the BBC.  There is real motivation to work again but, often after repeated rebuffs from employers, people perceive that this will only be possible under their own steam.  Clients told us about their interest in self-employment: many talked about employer prejudice related to their health and/or age.  Feeling fed up with being stuck at home and reliant on benefits was a common theme.
  • The track record shows that working disabled people are more likely to be self-employed than their non-disabled peers (Census 2011).  Most will have worked before they acquired their impairment so have previous skills and experience to build on.  Helping them realise their dreams needn’t be difficult – just making the support readily available while abandoning preconceptions, jargon and regimented delivery.
  • Success rates were good (25% of those who took part in the first meeting) and probably rather better than the Work Programme although direct comparison is difficult.  Success needs to be judged on more than business start-ups but on their sustainability, the numbers who came off benefits (so including those who found jobs), the improvements to physical and mental health reported by those who took part, the improvements in family relationships.  Such positive outcomes demonstrate that work isn’t just good for the individual and the benefits system but also potentially for health and social care sectors and wider society.  Deprivation is assessed equally broadly.

You can read more about what we did and how plus what clients said at

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

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