Increase Valorisation Sociale

Optivo, Abri, ClarionLondon and the South
What is the project?

Increase VS is a self-employment training programme led by Optivo in partnership with Clarion, Abri and four French Housing Associations. We focus on 38 English and French neighbourhoods facing similar challenges: high levels of deprivation, low economic activity and distance from the labour markets.
We adapted business start-up support to the needs of residents. Some of the key features are individual support, tailored solutions and strong local partnerships.
The project’s goal is to train and support 5,300 clients across both countries in 5,5 years, and with 12 months to go we had reached 4,000 (77% of our target). Of these, 970 had already started a business, and 1,400 secured employment or progressed into further education.
During lockdown, Increase VS partners quickly pivoted and intensified their services and extended their support to residents who already own a business, many of whom struggled during lockdown.
UK partners are now launching self-employment support services that will build a sustainable legacy. As the labour market changes and self-employment grows, Increase VS offers an opportunity for others in the Housing sector to learn.
The project is co-funded by the ERDF’s Interreg France (Channel) England programme.

Who is the project targeted at?

We focus on 38 English and French coastal and rural neighbourhoods where tourism and industry have declined and challenges are similar:
• High levels of deprivation
• Low economic activity
• Distance from labour markets
• Low or fragmented support.

Why did the project come about?

Local residents have low expectations given long-term unemployment and other barriers, which means they need a tailored and intense support. In this context, it’s also not easy to find a typical ‘9 to 5’ job, so Increase VS has piloted self-employment as a complementary route for social housing residents. Self-employment is indeed growing fast across all segments of the population in the UK, currently engaging 15.3% of the workforce versus 12% in 2000 (ONS 2020).

How was this project implemented?

Our goal has been to create an innovative integrated pathway for residents, delivered by housing providers transnationally. These are some of our innovative features:

• Individual support: We focus on residents’ interests and skills: where it’s doable and fun to start a business. We also offer English or French as a second language and digital skills when needed. If business start-up is not advisable, we refer clients to our well-established Employment Support teams to secure employment.
• Tailored solutions: We help clients with no or limited capital to start without debts. Training modules are flexible, fun and not too academic. After training, there’s peer-support groups assisted by ambassadors, specialist advice and opportunities to test business ideas, for example, in market fairs.
• Strong local partnerships: we work with others for cross-referrals, and to ensure a complementary offer. Peter Davison, at Portsmouth Creates (which is supported by the Council) says: “Abri have mentored creative [entrepreneurs], many of whom did not have experience and skills, with diligence, great insight, care and empathy”.
• Shared learning in the UK: Partners learn from each other, adopting others’ best practice, for example Optivo’s social media engagement with clients, Abri’s post-training support, or Clarion’s performance management.
• Shared learning with French organisations. Through Increase VS, French Housing Associations that historically focused on housing management have launched community investment projects. This includes Archipel Habitat’s Ecole de Proximité, an innovative project that recruits residents into roles in housing. Jerome Capelle, Head of Innovation at Pas-de-Calais Habitat, says, “Collaborating with UK housing associations has given us the opportunity to innovate and develop our service to better support our residents. Thanks to Optivo, best practices have been shared through on-site visits and interactive meetings”.

How was this project funded?

Increase Valorisation Sociale (“Increase VS”) is a social innovation project led by Optivo, a Housing Association with 45,000 homes across London, the South East and the Midlands. Increase VS partners include Clarion Futures (125,000 homes in the Clarion Housing Group), Abri (35,000 homes in the South of England), four French Housing Associations (76,000 homes in the North Coast of France), Weker, INCO and UEA. The project is co-funded by ERDF’s Interreg France (Channel) England programme; and supported by Orbit, Hyde Housing, Southern Housing Group, Town and Country Housing, West Kent, Fenland District Council and Swale Borough Council.

Outcomes so far

The last two years were undeniably challenging, yet we saw outstanding results. The project’s goal is to train and support 5,300 clients across both countries in 5,5 years, and with 12 months to go we have reached 4,000 (77% of our target). Of these, 970 had already started a business, and 1,400 secured employment or progressed into further education. In the UK, the 590 people who started a business chose to do so in sectors including construction, cleaning, hospitality, care, beauty and arts; and a further 790 followed the employment route. In France partners have supported 530 clients into a mix of start-ups, employment and community associations.

During lockdown, several start-ups understandably struggled but Increase VS partners responded quickly. We intensified support, introduced new modules around online sales, health and safety, and resilience, and expanded peer support to help clients meet online others facing similar issues in other regions. We also helped residents access laptops to run their businesses.

Kerry, who started a photography business with Optivo in 2020, says: “I have made huge progress on building my business and confidence. Lockdown has been stressful. Increase VS meetings kept me sane throughout”. Jess launched her own business with Clarion Futures. She says “I never thought I would actually have my own business. As a single mum I can work around schools, I’m still able to take time off if I need it and I love my job”. And, “Tatty Goose”, a start-up led y Sue and supported by Abri, went from losing money in the first six months of lockdown to turning over £100k next six. There’re more stories here:

Our training also creates opportunities for all. We support childcare and offer friendly hours and women are encouraged to consider traditionally more male-oriented activities. The project has been particularly successful in this respect and women make up 70% of Optivo’s clients. Increase VS is also offered a platform from which to engage new groups. For example, partners extended their support to self-employed residents (those who already own a business). As a matter of fact, 38.1% of those interviewed by Optivo in April 2021 still recognised significant difficulties to run their business, so our courses have been timely.

Future plans

We have learned many lessons, about the type of support that works, the sectors of interest, the costs and outcomes to expect. UEA is also producing an independent evaluation. And we are building a sustainable legacy. UK partners are launching self-employment support services beyond the life of the project. And in what’s a unique feature of this project, successful clients stay engaged as Ambassadors and mobilise others.

As the labour market changes and self-employment grows, Increase VS offers an opportunity for others in the housing sector to learn. We have built credible expertise, are open about our successes, failures and challenges, and will offer a series of events to help other Housing Associations set their response to self-employment. It’s also an opportunity for UK-France collaboration despite the current context.

Please contact us to be kept informed on future events and for further information on our project..

Contact Details

Clementine Flack

Tom Arkle,