Paint your town a rainbow


This article originally appeared in the MJ

Community wealth building is on the rise. As an intentional reorganisation of the local economy, to tackle inequality and disadvantage, it is needed now more than ever to address the significant challenges that are being felt so acutely in our homes and communities.

Dating back to the mid noughties, CLES’s work on aspects of community wealth building have developed into a powerful corrective to an economic model that has left too many people worse off, enriched the already wealthy few and propelled us further down the road to ecological disaster.

Instrumental to this development has been CLES’s collaborative work with Preston City Council and other organisations within the city. This began in 2013 and we are delighted to see this story captured in Paint Your Town Red – a new book from the council leader Matthew Brown and writer Rhian E Jones.

The story of Preston is widely reported and, rightly, much feted. On one level it’s a familiar tale, of how traditional pathways to economic growth, jobs and trickle down, have failed to deliver for all communities in Preston. The decline of industry in the 1970s had contributed to rising rates of poverty. By the early 2010s these issues were being compounded – both by public sector austerity and the post-financial crash recession, as well as the abandonment of planned inward investment to transform the city centre.

“what Preston did differently was to intentionally embark on a very different pathway”

In Preston, as in many other places, there was a recognition that a reliance on national and international finance to stimulate economic activity was, at best, ineffective and, at worst, disastrous for the economic fortunes of the people of the city. However, by working with CLES, what Preston did differently was to intentionally embark on a very different pathway. The book reflects on eight years of collaboration with local anchor institutions – universities, colleges, housing associations – to build a new network of local economic resilience for the city, creating an infrastructure of citizen ownership through co-operatives and other collaboratively owned business models.

Paint Your Town Red ably and accessibly outlines key achievements, offers reflections on the journey and maps out possible next steps in a way that will prove instructive, not just to other administrations grappling with their post-COVID economic fortunes, but to citizens who wish to advocate for better lives.

“community wealth building […] should not be thought of as a one-size-fits-all blueprint for change”

Nevertheless, and as the book makes clear, this is a bespoke approach to community wealth building that should not be thought of as a one-size-fits-all blueprint for change. Instead, it is an inspiration with pointers and tips as to what other areas could also do.

The community wealth building movement is growing significantly and is now finding utility in a myriad of different contexts across a global footprint – from Newham to the Western Isles, Lewes, Cleveland Ohio, and Bendigo in Australia. All of these places have intent to address wealth extraction and give communities a genuine stake in their economy, yet specific operating contexts vary significantly.

“we are now seeing the rapid implementation of community wealth building practice”

The UK is an obvious case in point here with community wealth building advancing rapidly in some areas compared to others. In Scotland, following on from CLES’s work in North Ayrshire, and subsequently five other locations, we are now seeing the rapid implementation of community wealth building practice to redirect wealth, control and benefits to local communities.

Here, this work is bolstered by a strong and conducive national policy framework – central to the Government’s wellbeing economy aspirations and featuring in the Scottish Programme for Government. Most recently, there has also been the appointment of a new minister for community wealth as well as the possibility of community wealth building legislation.

In England, however, things are moving a tadge slower. Here community wealth building is particularly hampered by the proliferation of an economic model prescribed by the Treasury and Whitehall, as well as a narrowly focused local economic development practice, which continues to prop-up extractive fossil fuelled economic growth.

“English localities must focus on reshaping local economic development practice”

Driving forward change in an English context therefore remains challenging. A shift in UK Government policy for England, in line with Scotland, would be the ideal accelerator for community wealth building, but this is unlikely anytime soon. For now, though, in addition to strong leadership, English localities must focus on reshaping local economic development practice. Particular attention should be paid to ensuring that economic gains are delivering social benefits at scale, within environmentally sustainable limits and that there are greater opportunities for citizens to shape the economic destinies of their localities.

Implementing this shift will not be easy, as it runs counter to the prevailing orthodoxy, but if we want resilient economies that work for communities and the climate then this is the approach that must be taken.

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