Getting community economic development out of its box

KLportrait1Karen Leach of Localise West Midlands, which promotes a localised approach to supply chains, money flow, ownership and decision-making for a more just and sustainable economy, explains why communities need to have a stake in their local economy.

Voluntary sector irrelevance or key to a successful and inclusive economy?

When we saw the “new ideas in economics” strand of the Barrow Cadbury Trust’s Poverty and Inclusion programme [now the Resources and Resilience programme], we were surprised, and pleased. It’s long been an ironic state of affairs that charitable trusts have shown limited interest in exploring the systems by which we organise our livelihoods that cause the social problems the trusts exist to solve.

To us, it was an opportunity to research the assumption at the heart of Localise West Midlands’ mission: that in a more localised economy, more people have a stake, which redistributes economic power and resilience, reducing disconnection and inequality. Not, perhaps, a ‘new’ idea, when you consider 1960s Schumacher – but newly in need of exploration in the face of growing inequality and economic failure.

The chasm between charity and economic development thinking is mutual. There are plentiful ideas around what we have been calling community economic development: social inclusion as CSR, community-led job creation, co-ops and social enterprises, local procurement initiatives. To many economic development practitioners these are very nice projects that go into a little box labelled “voluntary sector” and have little to do with the real economy, which is about big sites, tax breaks for multinational corporations – “prostituting ourselves for inward investment” as the Centre for Local Economic Strategies‘ Neil McInroy colourfully puts it.

Our project, Mainstreaming Community Economic Development, is an attempt to take localised economies out of this little box. Firstly, to see the social potential not only of voluntary sector initiatives with social objectives, but also of private sector activity that is locally controlled and based, where the community’s participation is as owners, investors, purchasers and networkers.

And secondly to challenge what is given economic priority. Given the benefits of localised approaches, shouldn’t we try to integrate them better into our economic interventions? Shouldn’t they get a fair crack at subsidies and support structures? Shouldn’t we use cost benefit analysis to see which types of activity most maximise the returns to the local area and to those in disadvantage? It doesn’t fit into a little box, it’s just a consideration in all good decisions.

Localised economies are more successful and inclusive

In its first stage, a review of the literature evidence for the benefits of localised economies, we found good evidence that local economies with higher levels of SMEs and local ownership perform better in terms of employment growth (especially disadvantaged and peripheral areas), social inclusion, income redistribution, health, civic engagement and wellbeing.
Such economies also support local distinctiveness and diversity, which we see as positives because of their contribution to economic resilience, economic options to suit a diversity of people, sense of place and belonging, area quality, added interest and richness of experience.

Absentee landlords vs local commitment

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We found that a local economy largely controlled by ‘absentee landlords’ – distant private and public sector controllers with little understanding of the local area – is a recipe for economic failure. Locally-inappropriate decisions and ‘footloose’ businesses leaving the area for better economic conditions seem to combine to weaken local businesses and create a self-reinforcing cycle of decline and exclusion.

Many of our private sector case studies showed local commitment. From Birmingham Wholesale Markets to renewable energy consultancies, they demonstrated ‘enlightened self-interest’ in understanding their interdependency with local communities. Their role in an inclusive economy can’t be underestimated. If only their voices were louder than those of absentee landlords in today’s ‘pro business’, London-centric political environment.

Mainstreaming and scaling up localisation

Informed by this and our case studies we set out proposals for a strategic approach centred on local supply and demand chains, participation and control. Taken strategically, every regeneration project, every economic development decision, every spatial plan, would be based on maximising benefit to and ownership by local people, and particularly its excluded communities.

While much can be done locally, to enable CED to scale up requires national change to decentralise economic and governmental power and make changes around policy, support services, subsidies, tax, banking, infrastructure and measures of success, creating a level playing field for indigenous economic activity.

Politically, it’s helpful that localisation approaches are inherently pro-business, but also respond to public concerns over the concentrations of wealth and power that created the 2008 Crash. As we take it forward, civil society interest, international examples like Mondragon and careful use of language may help this agenda to stay out of that little box long enough to contribute towards a better economy.

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