I have been involved in the Community Enterprise Awards for 11 years. Often striving against huge odds, community entrepreneurs provide hope, vision, services and opportunities for local people.

A rumour reached me yesterday that I was to launch a crusade today. Well, that is news to me. We are here to build on the consistent work already undertaken. To reward and recognise the achievements and work carried out all over this country by frequently unsung heroes and heroines.

At last year's awards presentation in Preston I was delighted to announce that, thanks to generous sponsorship from NatWest and The Times, the 1998 Community Enterprise Awards would have the added dimension of a Fellowship programme. This programme would provide significant support for community entrepreneurs throughout the United Kingdom by providing business partners and offering formal opportunities to network and share best practice.

It is very pleasing to see from the feedback I have received from this afternoon's seminar that the process has now started and I look forward to hearing how the programme develops over the next 12 months. I hope that all those who are going to the United States will find their visit worthwhile.

I have been involved in the Community Enterprise Awards for 11 years. Often striving against huge odds, community entrepreneurs provide hope, vision, services and opportunities for local people. For example, today's winners or previous winners such as David Robinson of Community Links in London, Tony McGann of the Eldonians in Liverpool or our very first winner Paddy Doherty of the Inner City Trust in Londonderry. Paddy has built over 70 residential units, nearly 100 retail spaces and workshops. There is a craft village and a heritage centre. Three thousand people are involved - 300 people are supported through training and some 150 permanent jobs have been created. People like them inspire people to get things done however difficult the circumstances.

Business in the Community has identified some 40 Regeneration Action Areas throughout the country - areas of social deprivation - and is starting to establish effective models of business engagement we hope for replication elsewhere, in support of education and skills development, small firms and community enterprises. This work is under way in partnership with national and local government in places like Balsall Heath - led by Neville Simms of Tarmac - or in Thanet led by Christopher Laing of Laings Construction.

I am delighted that my Seeing is Believing programme, which we started in 1990, is now focusing on these 40 areas. So far we have managed to take 940 business leaders on these visits. I have taken reports already on Thanet, and Brighton, and Little Hulton in Manchester. I am delighted that a further 12 business leaders will lead visits in the next three months to some further regeneration areas. I am enormously grateful to them.

Some of today's winners have already hosted Seeing is Believing visits, like Mark Gale of the winning Matson Project. David Varney of British Gas wrote to me of the setbacks which Mark Gale had to contend with, and the enthusiasm and commitment of Mark Gale and his determination in the face of these many setbacks.

Some of those setbacks, community entrepreneurs tell me, are concerned with the inflexibility of existing funding structures.

I am delighted that the Local Investment Fund, set up as a partnership between the private and public sector with a £3million fund has been of value in supporting innovative community projects in the last three years.

There is no doubt I believe that business can make a difference to social cohesion. The Partners in Leadership programme being pioneered by NatWest as part of the Times/NatWest Community Enterprise Awards is an excellent example of what can be done.

Can I take this opportunity to thank all those involved in the 1998 Community Enterprise Awards - the national and regional sponsors and all the teams of assessors up and down the United Kingdom.

And to all the projects represented here today my congratulations - you are, if I may say so, all shining examples of what can actually be achieved in often the most difficult circumstances by people with a real desire to change their situation and improve the social and economic well-being of their community.