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Cold climate and a government charm offensive at Voice11

At the start of
Voice11, the biggest event in the social enterprise calendar, the chief
executive of the organisers, the Social Enterprise Coalition stood up and said this
was completely different from any event that had gone before.

He was right, too. It
was the first time the event had been held in London, the first time (at least
for a while) that it’s been held on a single day, and the first time it had
been held, to all intents and purposes, outside.

OK, it wasn’t
actually outside, it was in the O2 Arena. But since the O2 is only a big tent,
it felt like it was outside. Especially by the main stage, which was about 50
yards from the open air.

We had been warned. A
note on page 20 of the exhibitor’s manual said “Please be aware the inside
temperature at the O2 is similar to outside temperatures so please wear
appropriate clothing”.

Judging from the
outfits, I think some readers might not have got that far, because plenty of
people were wearing shirts and ties, skirts and tights. Few were wearing all of them at the same time, though. If they had, it might just have been
enough to keep them warm.

Matthew Taylor, chief
executive of the RSA, described it as “the worst venue I’ve ever chaired an
event in” during a presentation from the main stage. But most of well over a thousand delegates were more positive. They are, after all social
entrepreneurs, and steeped in the power of positive thinking.

At least the weather
was, as one put it without irony, “a good icebreaker”. And it would be a shame
to concentrate solely on the conference centre, because the conference itself
threw up plenty to think about.

One thing was the
personal video message from David Cameron, who said that social enterprise was
a tool to solve our “most stubborn social and environmental problems”.

Another was the sheer
number of politicians keen to offer their two cents. Health secretary Andrew
Lansley spoke at the opening plenary, and business secretary Vince Cable gave the
closing address. Charities minister Nick Hurd chaired a session and also turned
up at a drinks party the night before. Meanwhile opposition leader Ed Miliband
promised to show up at the post-event awards, while Hazel Blears, the most
senior opposition figure to hold a third sector brief, was in attendance for
most of the day.

On the main stages,
the relationship with government ran right through the day. Social
entrepreneurs have been bombarded with a charm offensive by the new regime, and
are attempting to parse it. They are yet to decide what to make of the new
mega-social enterprises spun out from the state, of the new community rights to
buy, build and challenge, of billions promised in new public sector procurement
and of new finance through the Big Society Bank.

Together, these offer
potential ways to solve many of the issues that dominated last year’s
conference. A sceptical sector is now trying to work out if these solutions
really fit its needs.

At least one thorny
problem seems to have largely been laid to rest: the debate over the definition
of a social enterprise. While there is still some disagreement over asset locks
and legal forms, the Social Enterprise Mark seems to have set a standard which
most are happy enough to accept, even if they have not signed up to it
themselves.

This is a welcome
relief. But it’s just one answer in a sector that still contains a lot of questions.