Midnight in Edinburgh with Adam Smith

It was midnight and raining as I walked up a deserted Royal Mile in Edinburgh ahead of our event to discuss the Scottish Government’s proposed legislation for community wealth building. Out of the gloom, standing in front of a moody St Giles’ Cathedral was Adam Smith (well, his statue at any rate!).

Often credited as the father of modern economics and a proponent of self-interest characterised as “the invisible hand”, Smith was just as passionate about morality. 20th century economists, of course, made sure to keep the morality out of economics and we are all (quite literally) the poorer for it.

“we need to change our economic system so that it works in the interests of people”

Smith’s understanding of economics as a social rather than a mathematical science was a revelation to me when I was studying at The University of Glasgow. But Adam Smith was only the beginning of my enlightenment – I have since been lucky enough to learn from economists across the world who also believe we need to change our economic system so that it works in the interests of people, rather than the other way around.

But while the alternatives to economic orthodoxy are plentiful, the challenge remains in using them to deliver change. It’s exciting, then, that in Scotland, the government are considering legislation to enable the democratisation of our economy through community wealth building: a progressive global first, playing out here on UK shores.

In Edinburgh, at our event hosted with EDAS, we had the chance to hear from Tom Arthur, MSP for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, as well as to talk through the details of this proposed legislation. Here are ten key messages I took away from our discussion:

1) Don’t forget about the people not in the room

We need to be wary of simply speaking into the echo chamber. This legislation will go beyond the public sector with broader implications for the private sector and for community and voluntary organisations. How will we involve them in our discussions – both nationally and locally – about making the most of this opportunity for our places?

2) Keep it simple

Community wealth building is about working with intent to increase the creation and flow of wealth within place, particularly to benefit communities of need. There’s no need to overcomplicate with processes that dance around the delivery if we keep the intent at the forefront of our minds.

3) Let’s give places the power to deliver rather than a duty to comply

The biggest barrier to delivering economic change is often cultural. The reluctance to do things differently is sometimes down to a lack of confidence, other times because egos and power are being challenged. The legislation should be about helping people who want to deliver change to feel empowered, to feel that they have Scottish law on their side. We need the Bill to help unlock economic agency, both within organisations but also amongst communities.

4) Economic change is everyone’s business

In our discussions, there were many reflections on local economic development and the variation in how it is understood and delivered across Scotland. However, overriding all of this was a strong view from participants that building wealth for citizens in a place should not be the responsibility of just one wilful individual, council department, or even a single organisation. It should be a collective endeavour which brings everyone round the table.

5) Capacity comes with a price tag

There was real concern in the room about the capacity required for community wealth building to deliver: building relationships, convening new conversations, coaching and cajoling as well as monitoring and evaluating change. This is unsurprising, given the huge financial pressure on local organisations, but not to be ignored.

6) Ask not what your pillar can do for you…

Many conversations focussed on the so-called pillars of community wealth building. But, as the Minister reminded us, we must understand the collective power of the pillars and avoid the temptation to focus solely on one. Don’t just focus on the community wealth building pillars you are interested in – how do the other pillars support your work too?

7) Amending the 2003 Local Government (Scotland) Act

In some of the discussions, participants argued that some elements of this legislative change could form part of amendments to existing legislation. This case was made particularly in relation to community planning partnerships, which potentially have a critical role to play in helping to develop and design community wealth building across a place.

8) Recognise the contradictions

Like most new ideas, community wealth building comes with its own set of contradictions and dynamics. How to deliver economic change at scale across regions, based on delivery which tends to be focused locally? Anchor organisations are important but do they just need to be public or can they also include the private sector, community and voluntary organisations? What about neighbourhood anchors? This legislation is an exciting global first to create a wellbeing economy for Scotland but community wealth building is also an intensely practical tool and complications and contradictions are, therefore, inevitable.

9) Place matters (again)

The Scottish Government’s consultation document speaks directly to the importance of any future Bill reflecting local and regional contexts, particularly across a country as diverse as Scotland. However, it was fascinating to hear about the variation in how different public bodies engage with the agenda both nationally and locally. This has important implications for the duty and suggests that consideration needs to be given as to how any new duty is taken forward by public bodies nationally and how their take up is reflected locally.

10) Mind your language

The language of community wealth building and anchor institutions, whilst dear to those of us who work on this stuff every day, can be ambiguous to both the general public and others outside of the public sector. The prospect of legislation is an opportunity to sharpen and develop messaging and language around the outcomes we want to see on building wealth and economic democracy.

“rewire local economies in a way which restores a sense of morality”

I found myself hugely energised by the scale of the ambition and the desire of the people in the room for this to work – to build on the track record of organisations across Scotland who have been working to build the relationships, convene the conversations and slowly, place by place, work to rewire local economies in a way which restores a sense of morality and wellbeing back into the economy.

As I glimpsed Adam Smith again on my return journey following the event, in the quiet of an Edinburgh night I liked to think he’d have been pleased that Scotland was working to build morality into the wealth of a nation.