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

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

The government should create new self-employment centres to help struggling 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 coworking and meeting spaces, as well as face-to-face tailored advice services. These centres would be targeted in places where post-pandemic unemployment is likely to be particularly high – much like Sure Start Centres. 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 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 advice 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, researcher at the New Economics Foundation, said:

Self-employed people have struggled to make ends meet during 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.”


The New Economics Foundation is a charitable think tank. We are wholly independent of political parties and committed to being transparent about how we are funded.

The report, Beyond the Gig Economy, will be available at https://​newe​co​nom​ics​.org/​2​0​2​0​/​0​8​/​b​e​y​o​n​d​-​t​h​e​-​g​i​g​-​e​c​onomy on 00.01 Wednesday 5 August 2020.

The central government budget for 800 Sure Start centres in England and Wales in 2005/​2006 was £473 million (around £690 million in 2019 prices). This may be a useful guide as to the ordinal of government spending required to establish 100 pilot centres in locations put under particular stress by the post-pandemic economic crisis and where there were high concentrations of self-employed workers pre-pandemic (ie less than £1 million per centre). Further detail of running costs will require a feasibility study.

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