Create self-employment centres to help to struggle self-employed workers and revive ailing high streets

New self-employment centres would provide free co-working space, tailored advice and a community for self-employed workers.

The government should create new self-employment centres to help to struggle self-employed workers and revive the UK’s ailing high streets, according to research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) published today.

A pilot scheme of new self-employment centres, modelled on Sure Start children’s centres, would provide free co-working and meeting spaces, as well as face-to-face tailored advisory services. These centres would be targeted in places where post-pandemic unemployment is likely to be particularly high. Self-employment centres could also offer a much needed civic and communal space on already-ailing high streets, which are set to receive a second blow in the wake of the impact of lockdown on the retail sector.

The research finds that self-employed workers are isolated, and left with little power or support when facing difficulties at work. The self-employed make up 15% of the UK workforce, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Unlike employees in traditional workplaces, the self-employed have to provide their own equipment to carry out their jobs.

The report finds that low-paid self-employed workers were unable to shift to home working during the lockdown, unlike higher-paid freelancers in professional services like consultancy or tutoring. It highlights the gaps in the government’s self-employed income support scheme, and that many self-employed people cannot receive any sick pay.

The report recommends the creation of a pilot scheme of 100 new self-employment centres, targeted in areas with high unemployment after the pandemic, which would:

  • Provide free-at-the-point-of-use coworking and meeting spaces, as well as face-to-face tailored advisory services to self-employed people. Self-employment centres could also be a point of contact for peer support and union representation.
  • Provide an opportunity for self-employed people without work to pool and develop their skills and share knowledge of navigating things such as tax and income support.
  • Repurpose unused space to revitalise the UK’s beleaguered post-pandemic high streets. Self-employment centres could be housed in existing or acquired council or community assets.

The centres would be commissioned by local authorities and seed-funded by the government’s emergency Covid-19 funds, on an outcomes-based commissioning model. The centres could generate their own revenue stream from providing opportunities to run features like cafes and back-office services.

Emily Scurrah, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, said:

“Self-employed people have struggled to make ends meet during the lockdown, and financial insecurity can create a huge strain on workers’ mental health. Unlike the stereotype of a well-off, late-career professional, many people turn to self-employment because conditions in the workplace have taken a sharp downturn over the past few decades. What’s more, self-employment often sees these dismal conditions repeat themselves in new forms. The isolated nature of self-employment often makes challenging workplace issues very difficult, and many people in this type of work are amongst the most marginalised in society. Creating new self-employment centres would offer resources to support workers – such as a workspace, childcare, financial and social security advice, and, crucially, a place for self-employed workers to improve their working lives together.”

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