Day 20: Socially Enterprising


One of the themes that has recurred this month as I’ve travelled across Yorkshire and beyond is just how ready and willing we can be to go out of our way to help one another. The guard on the train taking the time to point me in the direction of what it is I’m looking for; the Twittersphere and the online followers inviting me to see the places they call home and the projects into which they pour their heart and soul. And this is just as true, not least, of businesses.

The latest manifestation of this spirit in business is the oft-heard but little-understood concept of the “social enterprise”. A buzzword more and more familiar to careful ears, even in my voyages this month I’ve stumbled across it frequently: the wonderful Baraka coffee house where I spent a drizzly morning in Garforth; the brand new Create restaurant at Atlas House in Leeds City Centre; The Source which introduces visitors to the great food on offer at Kirkgate Market.

Social enterprises – to borrow from the experts’ crib-sheet – are businesses guided by a social or environmental purpose. Social Enterprise UK say there are 62,000 such organisations across the country, responsible for employing around 800,000 people. They are businesses operating by the same principle of delivering goods and services in a competitive environment; but their social purpose is what drives them, and their profits are reinvested towards that purpose rather than maximised for the benefit of shareholders and owners.

They are the modern epitome of that co-operative spirit in business. However, in their drive for the improvement of their society, they are perhaps as old as time.

 Today I took the train from Leeds to Skipton, and alighted at the second stop, a golden old village dominated by a monumental Victorian mill: Saltaire.

Morley-born Titus Salt began his career joining his father as a partner in his business Daniel Salt and Son. When he took over from his father in the 1830s, he made the business the largest employer in Bradford – finding the time to become Mayor of Bradford along the way.

saltaire2When Sir Titus decided to build one large mill complex in order to establish his textile manufacturing operations in one location, he bought a vast plot of land three miles from Bradford – ideally located by the Leeds-Liverpool Canal and the Midland Railway – and built his huge mill, as well as houses for his employees, bathhouses, a hospital, almshouse, and church.

Step off the Skipton train today, and it remains as towering a monument to industry and philanthropy of a different age as ever: indeed, the WY Metro signs which herald the train stop as a World Heritage site prove just how far-reaching its impact has been.

Today, of course, the mill has been converted into a modern leisure complex, with a gallery, offices, shops, cafes, and even residential flats. The area is an affluent and sought-after postcode.

The abiding and irrevocable link to its heritage – and its departure from its origins – is perhaps best exemplified by the cosmopolitan-style bar close to the train stop. Sir Titus insisted upon strict morals and a wholesome, responsible way of life for his workers, and forbad public houses in his model village; the bar you’ll find there today is christened ‘Don’t Tell Titus’.

It’s said that Sir Titus described his purpose in founding Saltaire to the then Lord Harewood as “to do good and to give his sons employment”. That understated drive to do good – combined absolutely rightly with his own financial interests – carries on in the social enterprises of our day and age.

My readers may well be more guarded in their opinions than I am: I believe that any business is doing some good for the wider society if it brings jobs, wealth, and the opportunity for individual fulfilment of which these are prerequisites. If Sir Titus hadn’t sought to expand and build his business, maximising his profits and even his power, would Saltaire even be standing?

Of course, neither economics nor ethics are as clear-cut as that. But for the social entrepreneurs here in Yorkshire today, all they have to do to seek inspiration and motivation, as well as simply a reminder of the potential of their endeavours, alight at the second stop on the Skipton train.

We’ve got a good record around here of looking out for one another, and of doing good. Long may it continue.

For further background as to Mark’s challenge check out ‘28 days later’


  1. Have you bought into an overly romantic interpretation of much modern social enterprise. Some is much as you describe it. Much, perhaps the majority is not.

    It generates little or no surplus to invest in social cause and instead relies on grants, soft loans and other sources of public finance to deliver a social service of some kind, playing a part in breaking up the public sector as can be seen in the NHS and to a lesser extent in local authorities.

    What Sir Titus did was just good sustainable business. Many modern social enterprises should learn to do the same.

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