Becki Breiner’s business has gone from strength to strength with her Song Signing choir winning awards and auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent. Image: Supplied
British and French housing associations have helped 1,000 residents start a business through a Brexit-busting scheme over the last five years – but now the loss of European Union funding is seeing the initiative wind down.
The £10.8 million Increase Valorisation Sociale (IVS) scheme saw 10 housing associations work together in deprived areas across the two countries to encourage entrepreneurship by training residents to start their own business.
The team-up saw 6,259 people given courses to help them become business owners since 2018, including help with developing business ideas, administration, marketing and other trading essentials.
Tom Arkle, head of programme at Southern Housing – the housing association that leads the scheme – said: “The Increase Valorisation Sociale programme is a significant social innovation partnership programme, which we have had the privilege of leading.
“Our shared endeavours have brought people together and created significant opportunities and learning within communities.”
But the initiative faces a difficult future after EU funding ended in March. Of IVS’s total budget, £7.5m came from the Interreg France (Channel) England programme, through the European Regional Development Fund.
The project is now closed with Southern Housing offering small business support through internal funding.
That’s a blow for residents looking to follow in the success of business owners like Becki Breiner.
Breiner, from Sittingbourne, Kent, runs a community interest company called Song Signing. The 41-year-old created the business five years ago to help people with a hearing impairment like herself to learn sign language through music.
Song Signing’s choir has since performed songs in sign language at Britain’s Got Talent auditions and at Buckingham Palace as well as being nominated for awards but IVS has helped Breiner turn the idea into a business venture.
“I had the idea but I wasn’t sure how to go ahead and make it into something that was viable and doable and that’s when these guys came in,” said Breiner, who runs the business alongside her day job as a charity worker.
Breiner, who was an Optivo Housing resident – now part of Southern Housing Group, received a flyer through her door telling her about IVS and since then she has not looked back.
The training she received helped her with marketing to find her target market and starting a website as well as the financial and legal side of running a business.
It’s something she had no idea about, she told The Big Issue.
“That was the thing that was stopping me from doing anything,” said Breiner.
“They were there with a boot up my bottom telling me, ‘You can do this, you can do this’. I wasn’t very confident in myself and there wasn’t that belief that I could do something like this.
“Basically the support that I got from them was immense and still is even to this day. They’re still there at the end of the phone if I need them.”
Over the last five years IVS has seen residents complete training in 38 neighbourhoods from Hampshire to Norfolk in the south and east of England to Ille-et-Vilaine to Pas-de-Calais on France’s north coast.
That led to 16 per cent of participants going on to start a business while 18 per cent started a new job and seven per cent enrolled in education.
Overall more than 1,000 new businesses have been started through the scheme with 1,600 participants moving into work and education.
The University of East Anglia (UEA) carried out research into IVS earlier in the year to understand how efforts to tackle equality fit into the UK government’s levelling up agenda.
Researchers found that housing associations can be “key agents of change” due to their connections to the local community and lengthy presence and residents’ lives but underlined that the long-term nature of support is crucial to success.
Zografia Bika, professor of entrepreneurship at UEA’s Norwich Business School, said: “While much of the policy work on ‘levelling up’ has focused on smaller, regional cities in the hope that they can experience some of the gains seen in London and Paris, there remains much work to be done to improve the prospects of those in small, often deprived towns and communities.”
Delroy Campbell, 55, from Selsdon, South London, set up his IT business three years ago after receiving a text from Southern Housing about IVS.
He has been with the housing association since 1985 but the offer of support to help him with his business meant he was moved to give back.
“I did the course and found snippets of it very helpful and useful and I’ve been involved in the group since then,” said Campbell.
“The information that came out of the course is, to be honest, very expensive. So the fact you’re able to obtain it for free because there’s funding is pretty helpful.
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