Does it work?

Measuring impact for community wealth building

This blog originally appeared on the MJ.

Does it work? As the UK’s lead organisation for community wealth building, that’s the question we’re asked most frequently as the approach continues its advance into the mainstream of economic development.

Determining the effectiveness of real-world interventions like community wealth building is notoriously hard. Unlike testing new drugs, where randomised control trials can be used to attribute cause and effect, determining the impact of community wealth building on a local population has to be attempted in the context of the world around us – with all the messiness that entails.

“a positive impact on [the] health and wellbeing”

But, while this is challenging, it’s not impossible. A new paper published in the Lancet Public Health last week by the University of Liverpool, University of Central Lancashire, Lancaster University and us here at CLES, shows that community wealth building in the city of Preston is having a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of its residents.

“3% decline in antidepressant prescribing”

Our research found that during the period in which Preston’s community wealth building programme was introduced, there were fewer mental health problems than would have been expected compared to other similar areas, as life satisfaction and economic measures improved. The introduction of the programme was associated with a 3% decline in antidepressant prescribing, and a 2% decline in the prevalence of depression, along with a 9% improvement in life satisfaction, and an 11% increase in wages, compared to expected trends.

For CLES, the findings of this research are exciting but not surprising – local governments are of course active participants in local economies and, in our work across the UK, we see local councils and their partners using their assets and influence to support communities through local enterprise and good jobs. Community wealth building is emerging as a key tactic to realise this goal and this research continues to highlight its effectiveness as a driver of health and well-being.

“traditional pathways have failed to deliver for all communities”

The publication of this paper arrives at an opportune moment. With Westminster once again banging the drum that our national prosperity is contingent on growth, growth and more growth, Preston’s story is a timely reminder of how traditional pathways of economic development, jobs and trickle down, have failed to deliver for all communities. Preston’s challenges were compounded, as many have been – not only through public sector austerity and the post-financial crash recession – but by the abandonment of planned inward investment to transform the city centre.

The temptation in such circumstances would be to double down – to search out the next investor, the next great hope. But Preston chose a different path. Working with CLES, they sought to improve the economic fortunes of the people of the city by building an alternative from the ground up.

By harnessing the collective power of procurement, employment, finance and land, and by creating an infrastructure of citizen ownership through co-operatives and other collaboratively owned business models, Preston was able to reshape its economic development practice and drive improvements in population health in the process.

Inspired by Preston’s story, we’re now seeing many places across the UK harness the power of community wealth building, scaling-up the kinds of interventions that were piloted in Preston.

“helping to grow and diversify the local economy from within”

In Fife, Luton and Carmarthenshire, the councils’ own procurement activity is now seen as a central tenet of economic development. This is helping to grow and diversify the local economy from within – facilitating a shift towards the adoption of the Real Living Wage, responses to the climate emergency and environmental breakdown, as well as succession planning to potentially transition more businesses to worker ownership. In the NHS, we’re seeing employment initiatives such as I Can being used to reserve jobs for the recipients of pre-employment training schemes, targeting disadvantaged communities?and?settling residents into secure employment. In the Greater Manchester, North of the Tyne and Liverpool City Region Combined Authorities, we’re seeing the development of alternative business support offers to encourage the growth of alternative and more democratic forms of business ownership.

Taken together, these interventions offer a different blueprint for local economic development that is about rebooting the system rather than tinkering around the edges. What this new paper provides is crucial evidence of impact: community wealth building can provide an effective model for economic development that leads to substantial health benefits for local people and communities.

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