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Community spirit drives a business with a difference

Andrew Gibbs talks to Marie Osborne, chief executive of Future Wolverton – an organisation that uses its status as a Community Benefit Society to deliver a range of projects for the town.

IF ONE good thing emerged from the aftermath of the pandemic, it was a nation with a greater sense of community. Yet community spirit has always been strong in towns like Wolverton… and now it is being harnessed to maintain a business that benefits the town.

“The pandemic taught us how important our community is to us because we missed people so much,” says Marie Osborne. “Most of us were working from home and our relationship with where we live has changed. That creates an opportunity to make change happen.

There has to be a different way and that can be through a socially impactful community-led business.”

Marie is chief executive of Future Wolverton, a Community Benefit Society run by its members who guide its work. The business is funded from business revenue, loans from social investors and community shares – anyone over the age of 16 and with £1 in their pocket can buy a stake – and delivers a range of community projects determined by local need. In 2017, the organisation was behind the rescue of the Old School, purchasing and restoring the derelict buildings at a cost of £1.2 million. It is now home to three businesses, including a popular café that provides valuable work experience and employment opportunities for people with special educational needs, autism, ADHD and other long-term mental health conditions.

Today Future Wolverton has a total 30 people on its payroll and a core team of ten. “Everything about what we do is centred around sustainability,” says Marie. “Our people live in Wolverton and they do not want their talents to be used somewhere else – they want to use them for the benefit of the Wolverton community.”

Future Wolverton was set up in 2013 and is supported by social investment organisations, grant funders and business income. The only public money that supported the set up of the organisation was £15,000 feasibility funding from a Section 106. “It is a change of approach – a business will use its profit to develop a product or service,” says Marie. “Our difference is that people get access to employment and we come up with a community solution.”

Marie Osborne with regulars at the Old School House.

One business already working with Future Wolverton is Ringway, which has the Milton Keynes City Council contract to maintain the city’s highways, including infrastructure and redways. It gives work opportunities to Future Wolverton’s beneficiaries. Now Marie is appealing for other employers in Milton Keynes to follow Ringway’s lead.

“Our role is to move people on, “ she says. “They are with us for a year and we move 40% of our cohort who have never worked before into employment or back into education. Predominantly the 16-25 age group but we work with people aged up to 60. They have a desire to work and work gives you a sense of your own worth and a sense of self-esteem.”

Marie was working as a social housing manager in London before she moved to Milton Keynes in 1996 to work for the council as a regeneration office on Netherfield. “My first impression was that Milton Keynes is such a weird place but I was offered the job and I wanted to get out of London.”

She went self-employed in 2000 working for a consultancy on regeneration projects before taking a career break to have her son Danny. “I ended up living in Wolverton – I just fell in love with it, with its sense of community.”

Marie helped to found Future Wolverton in 2013. She was previously convener of Wolverton Steering Group, had sat on the committee of Wolverton Unlimited Association and has been a town councillor twice; once in the late 1990s and again in 2012.  She has worked on regeneration initiatives in Wolverton for the past ten years and is a strategic and creative thinker with an eye for opportunities and innovative project ideas. She has extensive experience in fundraising, project development and project management.

As a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, Marie is actively engaged in considering the challenges that arise from delivering services with fewer funds and supporting the transformation of the organisation to a social enterprise.

The work of Future Wolverton won the organisation the Business Impact in the Community award at the Milton Keynes Business Achievement Awards in 2022. Three months later, Wolverton was chosen to be one of five towns in England to pilot the Community Improvement District scheme, a new approach to high street regeneration. The idea of a CID was to build on the Business Improvement District concept, where businesses work together to effect change in an area in order to spur regeneration and boost business. Community Improvement Districts seek to give local people, community and charitable organisations – as well as businesses – a say over the strategic direction of their high street.

Involving the community in shaping their town centre is intended to have a positive impact, increasing residents’ sense of ownership and responsibility for their high street. Community organisations would move in and develop their services, providing diverse and vibrant activities, services and places for people to meet. All this will strengthen the local economy.

Flashback: Future Wolverton wins the Business in the Community category at the Milton Keynes Business Achievement Awards in 2022.

Future Wolverton used the CID opportunity to hold detailed conversations over nine months with residents over the future of the town centre, leading to two projects led by local people: the refurbishment of the Milton Keynes Age UK charity shop, and The Shop on The Square.

The Shop on the Square in Radcliffe Street opened in 2023, including pop-ups each day for start-up and micro businesses. The anchor tenant is Branch Out, a Community Interest Company that supports adults with learning differences and autism through social and therapeutic horticulture. The shop sells seasonal, speciality, artisan cut flowers and other plants.

“It complements what we already have,” says Marie. “It is an example of how communities can make a difference on the high street.”

What is happening in Wolverton can blaze a trail for other areas of Milton Keynes, Marie believes. “Wolverton is bohemian. It is full of people who want to live differently. It is multicultural and diverse and I love it. I wanted my son to grow up in a place like this and that is why I invested so much time in that.

“We have done it without recourse to public funding and I think that is really important for the future of what happens in Milton Keynes. There is another way, by supporting organisations and communities who want to do something themselves.

“We are a social business. It has to work financially but we are a profit-making business that makes a difference and it is totally possible to do those two things together. We have made a success of it against the odds and if that can be done once then it can be done again.

“There are other people out there – I am not the only one.”

  • The Old School is also the registered office for Wolverton Community Energy, which is Future Wolverton’s sister organisation. Future Wolverton was a Green Deal community, one of the first to join the scheme. In Wolverton the aim was to improve the energy efficiency of the Victorian houses in the town. 45 households joined to make their homes more energy efficient.

Marie is also a founding director of Wolverton Community Energy, which was set up with support from 115 community shareholders and a social loan from Big Issue Invest.

“When we set it up, energy bills were low and people were not interested but now they are high and people who we approached ten years ago want to talk to us,” says Marie. “We are actively looking for businesses that have rooftops, that want to make a difference to their footprint and want to work with a community energy organisation.”

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