Right place and time for change

by 

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

This week all eyes will be on the Autumn Statement. While the headlines will likely focus on questions of tax and public funding on the national level, the question of whether local government will receive any relief from more than 13 years of austerity will probably not make the cut.

Yet the systematic defunding and devaluing of local government is – I would argue – one of the reasons why there are growing levels of poverty, hardship and destitution, creating huge vulnerability in places across the UK, generating significant pressure in the NHS and in social care and undermining the potential of local economies. For decades, every chancellor has stood at the dispatch box and argued their plan is the one that will set this country on the path to prosperity for all. That they will deregulate, bulldoze, cut through regulation, look under stones in the pursuit of growth. Few are bothered about the quality of the economy they are nurturing, merely the upward trajectory. Often the most important question is missed: who benefits?

“The gap between those who have least and most is growing”

Take Greater Manchester, for example, where recent CLES research shows the city region’s economy has more than doubled since 1998. Yet a third of children live in poverty, there are 16,000 live applications for social housing and 390 neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in the UK. The wealth of the average Greater Manchester resident, including property and other assets, is around £84,400 while the 11 richest individuals in the city region have a combined wealth of more than £9.3bn. The gap between those who have least and most is growing year-on-year.

No one can doubt the transformation of the region in recent years, but now there is a need to ensure the wealth being created doesn’t simply benefit those who can help themselves but is fairly shared and owned by Greater Manchester’s residents, particularly those who currently do not feel as if they have a stake in the region’s future.

One of the reasons why the wealth being created in places like Greater Manchester doesn’t make an impact on the myriad challenges we face was well summarised by Ann Pettifor at CLES’s recent Summit.

“global investment redirects finance in its own interests”

She argued speculative global investment redirects finance in its own interests, with the highest returns dependent on insecurity, low wages and ramping up property and land values. The consequences of this end up on the doorsteps of local councils as waiting lists grow and insecurity drives people further into poverty and destitution.

It is unlikely the chancellor this week will be addressing Ann Pettifor’s challenge to slow and disrupt the flow and extraction of wealth from local economies.

However, as we argue in This Must Be the Place – a new paper being released this week – despite more than a decade of austerity and no end in sight, local authorities do have power in this space. Many of them are using their agency to get wealth flowing more directly to residents: by taking back control of regeneration and using publicly owned land and assets in the public interest.

There is also considerable power in £growing your own£ by supporting the existing businesses, start-ups, community owned enterprises and co-operatives in a place. The public sector can do this directly through their own spend and the spend of their partners.

The growth chancellors tend to want is the kind that puts money in voters’ pockets and provides security for ‘hard-working’ families. But we can go further than simply distributing money. What about putting the control and ownership of wealth creation in the hands of people so they can decide how the profits are distributed? This must be the place (and time) for change.

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