Putting the community in community wealth building 


Last week I had the honour of delivering the opening keynote presentation at the Third Sector Interface Scotland (TSI) Network conference. This was their first in person conference since before the onset of Covid-19, and the magnitude of the many challenges the third sector in Scotland has faced in recent years was never far from my mind throughout the day.  

The legacy of harsh austerity policies, a global pandemic and continued economic uncertainty (globally and closer to home as we have seen with the recent Scottish political upheaval) have all tested our communities’ resilience in ways we’ve never known before. But what was heartening to hear from delegates at the conference was how the third sector has continually risen to these various challenges. 

a large and significant economic force”

At the height of the pandemic, the TSI Network was able to support the third sector as it responded, at pace, to the difficult conditions which were faced in our places. This raised the profile of the sector, with local groups, with their unique insights into local conditions, on hand to mobilise and deliver services where the public sector struggled to reach. Beyond the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, recent research has shown the significant impact the third sector has on the Scottish economy overall, in terms of employment, volunteering and economic spend. With income generated totalling over £8.5bn per annum, the sector is a large and significant economic force in the Scottish economy.  

There is, however, a weariness in the sector, and a deep frustration at continually being devalued and overlooked by politics and policies: a sense that it is, as the often-applied “third sector” moniker implies, third in the race, third in importance. The reality is that this sector is fundamental to the delivery of many essential projects and services across Scotland.  

a huge gulf”

Since joining CLES in January 2024 I have been building connections across the Scottish policy landscape. A question I have been asked, and have asked myself, repeatedly is “where is the community in community wealth building”? Despite being the first word in this phrase, which is so popular in policy circles, for those on the ground there can seem a huge gulf between what the Scottish Government and the public sector as a whole means by “community” and what is understood by those working in those communities. In part, this disconnect is a problem of semantics – when community wealth building was first coined in the US in the 1980s what they meant by community was different from what we understand in the here and now. But communities, and the third sector generally, will need to have a more active role in Scotland’s community wealth building journey.  

Community wealth building must be thought of as far more than just changes to local government procurement practices. It is a wholesale rewiring that seeks to embed economic democracy, social justice and a meaningful commitment to tackling climate change into our local economies. But, as the public sector is stretched further and further, building partnerships across the charity sector will be essential to see community wealth building taken to its fullest expression. Our TSIs are the perfect vehicle to bridge the gap between the traditional institutional anchors (councils, hospitals, universities etc) and community anchor organisations (charities, social enterprises, development trusts, co-operatives etc) which operate on a community scale. The third sector can lead the call to take ownership of the community wealth building narrative from a top-down political agenda to instead become a bottom-up approach for how economic development can be co-produced at a local level. That was the key message from my presentation this week.  

a lot still to learn”

Because Scotland is the first country to consider implementing community wealth building nationally and through legislation, rather than through a bottom-up localised approach, there is a lot still to learn and understand. At CLES, our strategic priorities help shape and direct our research across the UK and our “strong economic democracy” theme in particular has significant alignment with the developing policy landscape in Scotland. A landscape where further land reform beckons, where we could become a good food nation, where a commitment to a wellbeing economy could be meaningfully baked into our economic strategies and the democracy matters consultation may enable us to rethink how local decision making can be undertaken in a way which empowers our places and communities. There is a need to be bold and brave, to accept that economics “as we have always done it” is not working but that there are models like community wealth building which can strengthen our economy.

We are moving into untested waters for community wealth building, whether considering the impact of freeports, or how we move to a fair energy transition, the need for communities to be at the heart of how we explore these challenges has never been clearer. In Scotland we hope to strengthen our relationship with the third sector, building our links through national agencies and the TSIs to see how the connection between the traditional space of community wealth building within the public sector can be honed to the community anchor and grassroots space.  

the path to meaningful economic transformation”

As we welcome a new first minister to the Scottish Parliament, now is the time for him to commit to making sure that Scotland is on the path to meaningful economic transformation. To make sure our local economies deliver for the people that live in them, and for the planet we all live in. Now is the time to make sure the third sector, this most essential of sectors, can help to transform our economies, our places and our society so that people, places and planet are at the core.