Firms in Oxfordshire’s growing low carbon economy have the opportunity to ‘double their impact’ and ensure their actions have positive social impact as well as environmental. Paul Roberts, head of employment and social enterprise charity Aspire, tells TechTribe Oxford how his organisation is stepping up its activities with enterprises, to help create a low carbon economy that is inclusive and accessible to all.
Roberts will be addressing delegates at Powering the Clean Growth Era, Oxfordshire Greentech’s conference on March 18. A key area where he sees real opportunities for employers is recruitment, as firms who are growing in the low-carbon sector are creating jobs Aspire can fill. The charity’s employment programmes train and support people facing severe challenges to move into employment, and it offers recruitment services to employers.
“You can’t power clean growth without manpower,” he says. “A greener economy that is fast-growing will create new jobs. We can help organisations to meet their recruitment needs. We are investing in adults and young people, who may be at a disadvantage, to become work-ready candidates. They can be great employees in this new, green economy workforce.
“What could be more exciting than organisations not only growing to create a greener, cleaner economy, but also helping us to meet our social impact needs? They can help to integrate refugees into communities, reduce homelessness, lower re-offending and get more young people into work. That’s when we’ll see true change.”
Roberts goes on to say how this is already happening and gives the example of an Aspire candidate who works at the SESI refill warehouse in East Oxford. “This person used to be a rough sleeper who we supported last winter and helped into work, but it was quite low paid. Then the opportunity with SESI came up,” says Roberts.
This was better paid in an organisation aligned to Aspire’s values: “SESI was expanding, they needed to recruit, so they came to us, and now this former homeless person has secure housing and a good job.”
The charity aims are to transform the lives of vulnerable people in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Aspire has grown threefold since 2012 and last year provided specialist support for more than 2,000 people to achieve positive, lasting change in their lives. Its employment programmes provide long-term, specialist support for individual needs, and in 2018/19 it helped 186 people to move into and towards employment, education, training and volunteering.
The charity is also on a mission to help support enterprises which have positive social impact. It manages Aspire @ Flo’s, one of six eScalate hubs launched in February 2020 as part of a programme led by Oxfordshire Social Enterprise Partnership, of which Aspire is a founding member. The eScalate hubs are focused on helping social entrepreneurs, charities and purposeful businesses to learn new skills and increase their social and environmental impact.
Roberts points out that Aspire @ Flo’s is another, free way for enterprises to connect with the community: “Let us help you if you’re starting up, by coming to the eScalate hubs, as they are a free resource.”
Aspire helped to set up and incubate Flo’s the Place in the Park, which opened in 2018 as a community-owned hub featuring a cafe, refill shop, community space, and family services.
“We are in the process of transitioning the cafe to be part of Flo’s, which gives us more opportunity to enforce the sustainability side,” says Roberts.
Much of Aspire’s work is based on collaboration and partnership, and it works with dozens of organisations in the region to help those in need. Roberts sees the charity as having an important role to play in helping community programmes to implement their own sustainability plans and policies.
At Powering the Clean Growth Era, he will be announcing a new collaboration with sustainability enterprise Bioregional to support community groups across Oxfordshire to adopt low carbon plans. Bioregional has secured funding from Oxfordshire County Council for the scheme, which starts in April. Aspire will employ two part-time integrators to support the adoption of the plans.
Roberts is keen for Aspire to step up its own efforts to become environmentally sustainable. The charity is working with Bioregional to adopt its One Planet Action Plan, a comprehensive framework based on ten core principles, “in recognition that we need to step up and have a more holistic response to sustainability,” he says. “This is being championed from board level down, and there’s a core understanding that it is something you can’t afford not to do. It’s about business continuity.”
In some cases, lowering carbon emissions is essential if Aspire is continue to provide services. An example is community transport, which will be affected by the Zero Emissions Zone (ZEZ), scheduled to be introduced in Oxford from late 2020. Aspire runs one of the very few community transport services for the elderly, as Roberts explains: “We work with dementia day care services to support elderly people who can’t use public transport, so we really are their only source of transport. The problem is that those buses are diesel, so unless we make some form of transition to clean vehicles, then once the ZEZ is established, the service will be limited and it means that people will be excluded. So there are lots of reasons we have to do this.”
On how Aspire can meet these pressures with tight resources, Roberts is positive: “We’re quite well placed in that we are a registered charity and a social enterprise, and we can raise finance. It’s still a challenge, but one we should be excited about: How we can set the example and transform the way we work. After all, if we can do it on our budget, it shows that everyone else can do it.”
Enthusiasm for innovation and technology as ways of doing things better runs through Aspire. The charity is supporting online platforms that develop networks and bring communities together such as Greater Change, a crowdfunding platform which raises support for people experiencing homelessness: “A former Oxford University student came to us with an idea,” explains Roberts. “We worked with him to raise funds, we incubated it and now it’s a separate community interest company.” Oxford homeless movement enables the homelessness sector to communicate with the general public and explain how they can help. Aspire worked with creative agency Global Initiative on these projects.
Aspire is a member of business sustainability network Oxfordshire Greentech, and Roberts points to the shared values of the two different organisations: “We hit it off straight away in terms of cultural positioning. We have such complementary but very different networks; Lewis Knight and the team can see the volume of relationships that Aspire has. There’s a healthy mutual respect between us and it’ll be really interesting to see where we are in 12 months’ time.”
Powering the Clean Growth Era Conference takes place Wednesday March 18 at Saïd Business School, Oxford. Speakers include influential economist Kate Raworth and Bev Hindle, director of the Oxfordshire Growth Board. The event is organised by Oxfordshire Greentech and its affiliate network Cambridge Cleantech, in association with Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP). Register for tickets here.