From Coronavirus to Community Wealth – Building Back Better in Northern Ireland


Just over a year ago, our organisations – the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and Development Trusts NI (DTNI) – jointly penned Time to build an inclusive local economy – A Charter for Change, setting out a community wealth building approach to local economic development in Northern Ireland.

A lot has changed since then. Theresa May no longer occupies Number 10; Leo Varadkar is no longer Taoiseach; Stormont is back; Brexit is happening – bringing with it disruptions to trade in Northern Ireland. And we have suffered, and continue to suffer, the enormous social and economic turmoil brought about by Covid-19.

“For all too long, the economy in NI has not been working well for people and place.”

Amidst all this change, some things, however, have remained constant. Northern Ireland’s economy – even prior to the onset of coronavirus – had still not recovered fully from the financial crisis. For all too long, the economy in NI has not been working well for people and place. Poverty and inequality remain stubbornly entrenched, and NI suffers from the highest rate of economic inactivity across the UK – an unenviable record it has held for over three decades.

With the double-whammy of Brexit and Covid-19, a return to normal is looking not just impossible but also undesirable. The context has changed – but fundamentally, we face familiar problems: extractive economics, an overreliance on inward investment, poorly paid – and increasingly scarce – work, and an unwillingness to analyse how wealth shapes our local economies: who owns it, who benefits from it, and where it goes.

“only 6% of the UK public want a return to the pre-pandemic economy”

Covid-19 has highlighted these facts starkly – a consensus is growing that there is a need to do things differently: only 6% of the UK public want a return to the pre-pandemic economy. We need to build in Northern Ireland an economy that is sensitive to place, works within environmental limits, embraces and nurtures the capacities of our communities, and delivers social value.

One year on from the publication of A Charter for Change, and in the midst of a generational crisis, there is a pressing need to reflect on and refresh how we build inclusive local economies in Northern Ireland. It is in keeping with this that we are jointly releasing From Coronavirus to Community Wealth – a new report that provides practical and policy recommendations for the building of community wealth across localities in Northern Ireland.

At the policy level, we have refreshed and refined our four key building blocks – the ABCD of inclusive economies: Advancing local community power; Building Community Wealth; Commissioning and procuring for social value; Developing finance to support local economies.

On top of this, we have also included a series of bespoke recommendations: what is needed in Northern Ireland is a concerted, practical strategy through which community wealth building can be advanced and embedded at all levels. To this end, we have set out a framework by which community wealth building can be progressed from Stormont down and from communities up.

At Stormont, a ministerial steering group should be formed to propel the work of community wealth building through government. Community wealth building should also be adopted and progressed through the priorities and programmes of individual departments. With all of NI now covered by either a city deal or growth deal, efforts should be made to refresh the priorities of these agreements, ensuring they are tailored around the needs of a new era, not rebuilding our old economy.

“devolution from the centre needs to be coupled with renewed collaboration”

At the local government level, devolution from the centre needs to be coupled with renewed collaboration as a prerequisite for the local development of community wealth. Finally, to build back better and grow the “generative” economy – firms rooted in place who work for the benefit of their community – there is a need to advance community ownership of firms and assets. Central to this is the advancement of legislation enshrining the rights of communities to take ownership of surplus local assets and participate more meaningfully in local democracy.

Fertile conditions

Northern Ireland has fertile soil conditions for the flourishing of community wealth building. It has strong, well-capitalised credit unions. It has a system of community planning which could and should act as the precursor for the kinds of innovative anchor networks we have seen progressing community wealth building across GB. It has a panoply of development trusts, social enterprises, and community organisations, alongside a growing co-operative movement exemplified by innovative actors like the Living Wage accredited, worker-owned Belfast Cleaning Society. The Programme for Government also contains a number of priority outcomes focused on creating societal wellbeing. What is needed to truly turn the dial is action.

“Adopt community wealth building at scale and at speed”

As CLES have argued elsewhere, Covid-19 confronts us with a mobilisation moment – with the fragility of our economic and social settlement being exposed, and further economic turmoil heading down the tracks, there is a need for actors to adopt community wealth building at scale and at speed. Across the UK, this is the trend we are now seeing – both the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments are now progressing community wealth building as part of their recovery and reform activities.

If we want “build back better” to be more than a nice phrase in Northern Ireland, there is a need to push on with similar resolve – ensuring NI’s recovery from Covid-19 is shaped by the principles and driven by the practice of community wealth building.