A green recovery for local economies

Covid-19 and the climate emergency both expose in different ways the fundamental lack of resilience in how we develop local economies in the UK. There has been a lot of talk about how we must “build back better”, but if we want a green recovery worthy of the name, it will mean confronting these underlying issues once and for all.

Local economies are, right now, between a rock and a hard place: the rock – an unprecedented economic collapse, with mass unemployment, business failure, and social destitution for many; the hard place – the looming threat of climate emergency, with every new hot day a reminder that the clock is ticking towards ecological collapse.

It is true that our responses to these crises will have to be vast, working at the national and global level. But the local dimensions of these two major ruptures must not be ignored. Just as the old saying goes that “all politics is local”, it is also true that the jobs lost to Covid-19 or the busting of a river dam, happen in real places and to real communities.

“localities have no choice but to boldly confront both issues, head on”

This means that localities have no choice but to boldly confront both issues, head on. Rather than waiting for enlightened action from Parliament or the UN, localities must be at the forefront of protecting their interests and their communities; and must do so urgently.

For CLES, the question is how can local economies play their part in tackling the climate emergency at the same time as responding to Covid-19?

That is why today we are launching A Green Recovery for Local Economies; a new publication that seeks to answer this question. In this paper, we call on localities across the UK to adopt a green recovery after Covid-19 and to develop recovery packages centred on social, economic, and environmental justice.

We believe that there are three broad principles that localities should follow in order to deliver this imperative.

1. A new local economics

CLES has previously argued that the current local economic development model pursued by almost all places in the UK is insufficient to meet the major economic, social, and environmental challenges we face. This is now doubly true in the era of climate emergency, in which the logic of growth and accumulation means that economically and environmentally extractive business models are left unchallenged, and, that tackling the climate emergency is at best relegated to be a second tier priority.

“Instead of “greening” the same old economic model, localities need to fundamentally embrace a new approach”

Localities that talk a good game on the climate whilst also expanding economic practices in sectors such as coal or aviation are effectively taking one step forwards, two steps back. Instead of “greening” the same old economic model, localities need to fundamentally embrace a new approach to local economic development that is rooted in the principles of the Green New Deal and community wealth building.

2. A green industrial strategy

Once a locality has embraced a new approach to local economic development, we need to look at the tools available to bring about the deep change needed in our economy to meet net zero targets. This is primarily a sectoral challenge, compounded by the mass unemployment and social destitution that will come from the Covid-19 crisis. By identifying key green sectors, and developing pipelines to reskill those facing unemployment, localities can replace the jobs lost to Covid-19 with green jobs that offer workers a “just transition” into the green economy. This work should be primarily realised through a new approach to local industrial strategy.

3. Harnessing the community wealth building toolkit

The emergence of the community wealth building movement in the UK has been a lesson in perseverance. Despite the infertile soil of extractive economics, austerity, and centralisation, localities have managed to drive ahead with progressive practice that helps alleviate real pain, and also shifts the dial towards good local economies for all.

“local leaders have been unafraid to confront orthodoxies in economic development thinking”

We now need to urgently bring the lessons from community wealth building into the movement for climate and environmental justice. This refers to both the spirit of community wealth building, in which local leaders have been unafraid to confront orthodoxies in economic development thinking, even when national government and powerful vested interests act in opposition. But it also means learning from specific policy lessons, most notably about the economic power of anchor institutions. In the publication, we outline how the community wealth building “toolkit” can be harnessed in this way, for example by using progressive procurement techniques to animate local food co-operatives, or to empower local suppliers to adopt carbon-friendly practices.

“This is a movement imbued with resolve”

Community wealth building has always been about using the power of local people and institutions to collectively resist the forces of extraction, and instead build an economy that values people over profit. This is a movement imbued with resolve, strengthened by a decade of lessons learnt, and an international network of thinkers and doers.

It is time to turn the attention of this movement to fight the biggest challenge facing all of us – the climate emergency. This will be the greatest challenge yet for the movement, and CLES looks forward to taking it on with our friends wherever they may be.