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.  

RORE-ing forward

The UK has a big problem, and for once, it’s one everyone can agree on: for too long, regional disparities have suppressed the potential of some areas of our country, leaving communities behind, as growth and opportunity amass in others.

But things could be different. For at least 20 years there has been recognition that decentralisation is the key to a more even spread of prosperity across the UK. From New Labour’s devolution of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies to the creation of elected mayors under Cameron and Osbourne’s government, both parties have recognised the necessity of devolving powers from Westminster. But, as Britain’s persistent levels of regional inequality have made clear, simply devolving modest powers is not the solution. The one-size-fits all approach to economic development, predicated on GVA growth, which is favoured in Westminster does not benefit all our regions equally.
“communities in the driving seat”
Now, with new devolution settlements coming into force in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and with more areas set to follow suit – including the North East, as announced in last week’s Spring Budget – combined authorities are bringing clout, spending power and scale to our regions for the first time in a long time. This means that leaders have the opportunity to experiment with different ways of doing things. They can explore how local levies and powers can be used to encourage sustainable and equitable economic development as well as how new powers over transport, health and housing can put people and communities in the driving seat of decision-making. This is a moment of huge potential, with the door at least partially open to build a new way of doing economic decision making at a scale not seen before.

Building Community Wealth in Scotland

Our response to the Scottish Government’s consultation

As Sarah Longlands shared at the end of March, we have been delighted to be able to work with partners and friends across Scotland over the last few months to understand their views on the Government’s proposals for a Community Wealth Building Bill.

This legislations would be a powerful step forward in enabling the democratisation of our economy and would be progressive global first – that it could happen so close to home is immensely exciting. The government’s consultation closed on Tuesday this week and below we share our responses to the questions posed. We would be delighted to hear your thoughts too – please do get in touch if you would like to discuss any aspects of our response, the items under consultation or the development of community wealth building in Scotland or anywhere else.

Whitehall isn’t working

At the same time as the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill made its second reading in Parliament on 8 June, another damming report on levelling up was being published – this time on the allocation of funding, by the Public Accounts Committee.

Like ships in the night, the rhetoric and reality of this policy agenda sail past each other once again, with the government seemingly unwilling to learn the lessons from past mistakes.
“the PAC report did not pull any punches”
The PAC report did not pull any punches: ministers decided the principles for awarding the funding only after they’d seen the applicants; there was no transparency about the location and type of unsuccessful bids; local councils’ time, capacity and precious resources have been wasted repeatedly as they’ve attempted to make sense of a kneejerk policy agenda directed from the centre. Despite the billions that have been spent, the government are still no closer to understanding what impact their money has had or indeed, what they should be spending future money on in order to address the regional inequality that marks the UK out as a considerable outlier amongst OECD countries.
“a degree level textbook for economic policy development”
The PAC’s recommendations read like a degree level textbook for economic policy development: be clear about what outcomes you are trying to achieve; develop some indicators so that you know your investment is working; consider the evidence about what can be learned from past efforts to deliver the desired outcomes. The fact that ministers and civil servants aren’t even getting to basecamp on some of these foundational questions shows a contempt for the communities who are supposed to be benefiting from this investment as well as a disregard for the accounting of public money. All £11bn of it.

A budget for recovery…but recovery for whom?

Years of successive budgets have been high on rhetoric and low on the content required to fundamentally change our economy. This budget is no different. The budget has continued to shore up spend, but not for local economies, local public services or the climate. In previous times, increased state spending would have benefited public sector workers and enhanced the social protection floor to insure us against poverty and destitution. Not this time.

Within the continued pledge to do “whatever it takes” there are plenty of warm words, bolstered by policies that show concern, but the cold harshness of a fossil fuelled economy of growth, financialisation and wealth extraction remains.

Putting place at the heart of a green recovery

Building community wealth through community energy

With fresh discussion this week about the importance of a green recovery, it is increasingly clear that post-Covid rebuilding must have a just transition away from a carbon-based economy at its core. The government have promised £350 million to fuel a green recovery, and Labour have challenged them to go further and support up to 400,000 clean, green jobs, amongst other policies which could enable a green recovery.

While the shape of a green recovery is debated in central government, we know that to tackle the economic and environmental challenges we face (and which have been thrown into the light through the pandemic) it will be crucial to take an approach to economic recovery which recognises the importance of place. Our paper, A Green Recovery for Local Economies, released in July this year, articulates many opportunities for an approach to recovery which builds community wealth and places climate at the heart of how we “build back better”.
“a key, green opportunity for localities”
One area of potential is community energy – the delivery of community-led renewable energy, energy demand reduction and energy supply projects. These tools represent a key, green opportunity for localities to democratise their local economies, wield the power of anchor institutions and build community wealth. Community energy projects can be wholly owned and/or controlled by communities, or in partnership with commercial or public sector partners, thus placing communities at the centre of energy systems, creating accountability, participatory governance and democratising the benefits of carbon transition, alongside enabling the further decentralisation of the energy system.

Digging Deep for Change

This piece originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

We are optimists in local government. But that optimism is being stretched to breaking point: by this pandemic, by ongoing public service austerity, rising demand, insecure finances and stalled devolution. As the context worsens and our early hopes of ‘building back better’ dim, we’re going to have to dig deep.

In April, CLES – the national organisation for local economies – argued that we faced a moment of historic importance. Our argument then, as it is now, was that this pandemic will require unprecedented action to safeguard the wellbeing of millions, but that it also represents an unprecedented opportunity to drive a huge transformation and build a greener and fairer society. Yet, as the months have passed, these big changes have not materialised. If we are to live up to the necessity and opportunity that COVID-19 has afforded us, there are three key things we are going to have to confront.

Economic recovery and reform: the role of community power

This article originally appeared in the MJ

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, our economy was failing many people and the planet. The imperative then was to create an economy that serves our needs, and shares wealth amongst as many people as possible. This imperative has only been amplified by the situation in which we now find ourselves. We believe the surge in community power in response to Covid-19 harbours the key to building back a better economy.

The recent upsurge in social solidary has been impressive with millions of acts of kindness taking place every day. Within days of the NHS volunteer scheme being announced, over 750,000 people had signed up. The Covid-19 Mutual Aid movement has mobilised 2.5 million people across the UK who are now working with community groups to deliver emergency food parcels.

Health institutions as “anchors”: unlocking the potential within the NHS

This article originally appeared in the Health Service Journal.

The NHS is not just a service that provides healthcare free at the point of need. It is a social contract with the British people to deliver well-being.

Across its wide range of services, the NHS’s mission extends beyond making us better when we are ill, it is also about making sure we do not fall ill in the first place – playing a key part in addressing the wider social, economic and environmental determinants of health.

We need to remake democracy

This post originally appeared on the website of  Compass – an organisation that fights for a more equal, democratic and sustainable society.

In 1934 the political historian RH Tawney said that the UK is ‘the oldest and toughest plutocracy in the world’.  Our democracy has been unjust for a very long time – too ready to doff its hat to privilege and wealth.

We have had years of scandals as regards cash for questions, the power of lobbyists, and dubious parliamentary expense claims. The recent Brexit debate and paralysis has further revealed the deep problems. Brexit has seeped into the rotten cracks of our democracy and parliamentary processes and made them chasms.  Our democracy and ‘mother of all’ parliaments is in bad shape, it has now been fully exposed:  arcane, archaic and addled.  Unable to represent properly and inchoate.  It sets the tone for our wider democracy and it is increasingly discordant.

On the front line of social change – the importance of community businesses in community wealth building

If you want to see community wealth building in action, come to Liverpool 8.

There you will find The Florence Institute – known to all around as The Florrie – a vibrant community hub housed in an imposing Grade II listed Victorian building. Since being restored by local activists in 2012, The Florrie has been a space of empowerment for local residents – building wealth by offering jobs and projects to support those most in need.
“Community businesses play a crucial role in community wealth building by enabling a more plural ownership of the economy”
It was therefore a fitting venue for last week’s launch of CLES’ latest research on behalf of the Power to Change Research Institute – Building an inclusive economy: the role of social capital and agency in community business in deprived communitiesThe report looked at how community businesses can support the development of more inclusive economies in deprived areas. Using three case studies (north Hull, west Smethwick, and south Liverpool), CLES has spent the last year seeking to understand how varying forms of social capital are needed to help seed a vibrant local community business scene.

Understanding Welsh Places

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) worked with data provided by Cardiff University to develop interdependence modelling for the new Understanding Welsh Places website, which was launched in Cardiff today.

This follows on from our involvement in the development of the Understanding Scottish Places platform and CLES Senior Researchers David Burch and Matt Todd attended the launch of the site.

Understanding Welsh Places is a bilingual website coordinated by the Institute of Welsh Affairs that presents information on the economy, demographic make-up and local services of more than 300 places in Wales in a quick and easy format.

We need to talk about nightlife   

The creative sector represents a huge employer in the UK. It contributes billions to the economy, employs thousands, and is a key export of our economy. Yet the sector faces enormous challenges in UK cities. The cost of rent, poor connectivity, and licencing problems resulting from city centre residential developments are just some of the issues cultural operators face.

Back to the future? Thoughts on the first UK2070 Commission report

The UK2070 Commission has released its first report: fairer and stronger: rebalancing the UK economy. The first of three reports, it represents the latest in a long line of policy efforts which have sought to tackle the deep spatial inequality which has plagued the UK as far back as the Barlow Commission of 1940. Does this report – or the Commission as a whole – offer a genuine, much-needed step change?

The starting point for UK2070 should be an acknowledgement that we live in unprecedented times: profound social, economic and democratic crises continue to unfold with a terrifying backdrop of ongoing climate emergency. Spatial imbalances are framed by this, as such  we need a fundamental redress to the UK social contract – this is not a 1979, 1997 or 2010 moment, this is more like 1945.