The first Community Economic Development programme for a generation, open soon…

While the elephants of national political life trumpet and dance, there is a wonderful new programme starting at the grass-roots level, with cross-party support.

This is the first national ‘community economic development’ programme for a generation – reaching back to the pioneering work on community business of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Board in Scotland and on local economies by the Greater London Enterprise Board.

The new programme, which focuses on community-led solutions for economic renewal, is backed by the Department for Communities and Local Government and will be delivered by an alliance of organisations, including Co-operatives UK, New Economics Foundation, Locality, Community Development Finance Association and the Community Development Foundation.

Anyone who works on neighbourhood development knows that local economy shapes and defines what you can achieve. No jobs, you are playing catch-up. If the bank closes, businesses close as night follows day. No business, you will have no life on the streets, but the siren hoardings of payday lenders. Some of the most inspiring examples of neighbourhood renewal are those that have turned the local economy from vicious spiral to virtuous circle.

Local authorities have a key role to play, as the longstanding work of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies shows, but there is also something different about where this is true community-led regeneration. Success tends to be where you can tap into the same spirit of self-help and mutual aid that characterises the best co-operatives. Perhaps it is no surprise that over half of co-ops (56%) are to be found in the least advantaged areas of the UK, while the enabling role of community agencies, such as settlements and development trusts in the poorest neighbourhoods is well recognised. As Pat Conaty argues, in his book on community economic development, The Resilience Imperative, co-written with Canadian community economic development specialist Mike Lewis, they create a voice for local people and a stake in their success.

The new programme will help 50 communities in England to develop their own community economic development plans. Anyone can apply from April 1st – you just need to be involved in an existing organisation – whether that’s a local community group, local business, parish council or any other local body. An experienced adviser will act as the main point of contact and will guide you throughout the process of developing a well-supported, dynamic and deliverable local economic plan – with the support of a grant of £5,000 for the further development of your plan and with access to specialist support.

What does success look like? There are some great examples set out in the report we published last year with the New Weather Institute by David Boyle, called Ultra-Micro Economics in partnership with groups like Localise West Midlands, Sustrans UK and the Transition Network REconomy Project. When I was asked to select some of the best examples I knew of, to act as illustrations, this was my suggested ‘top 5’ community economic development success stories.

1. In West Dorset, rural communities have created local food links and new food enterprises.
2. In Haringey, money and jobs are being saved through a co-operative programme on energy efficiency.
3. In Preston, the local authority, police and health services are seeing where they can place contracts with locally owned businesses.
4. In Bristol, growing numbers of people have joined the local credit union, for local savings and a currency that can be cashed with local enterprise.
5. In the Black Country, a loan fund supports local businesses turned down by high street banks to survive and thrive.

There is plenty of scope now to add more!

The Co-op Pope. Pope Francis calls for an economy of honesty

“The Church has always acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged the co-operative experience”, said Pope Francis a few days ago to seven thousand members of the Confederation of Italian Co-operatives.

Pope Francis referred to past teaching that chimed with co-ops, such as the encyclicals “Rerum Novarum”, with Leo XIII’s appeal for a society in which “All [are] owners, not all proletarians”. But he urged co-ops to look to the future: “It is a real mission that requires creative imagination to find forms, methods, attitudes and tools to combat the throwaway culture cultivated by the powers that support the economic and financial policies of the globalised world”.

He proposed five actions for co-operative action, to build an ‘economy of honesty’.

1. Co-operatives should “continue to be the motor for lifting up and developing the weakest part of our local communities and of civil society”. This involves “giving first place to the foundation of new co-operative enterprises, along with the further development of those already in existence, so as to create, above all, new work opportunities that currently do not exist … especially for the young, as we know that youth unemployment … destroys their hope”, but also for the “many women who need and wish to enter the world of work. We must not neglect the adults who often find themselves prematurely without work. Aside from new enterprises, let us look also to the companies in difficulty, those that the old owners leave to die, which could instead be revived through co-operative ‘workers’ buy out’ initiatives.

2. Look to become active agents of new welfare solutions, above all in the healthcare sector, “a delicate field where many poor people no longer find their needs to be adequately met”. The answer may be found in applying subsidiarity, “with strength and coherence”, creating an effective network of assistance and solidarity between co-operatives, parishes and hospitals.

3. Co-ops can be symbols of a different approach to the economy. “It is well known that a certain liberalism believes it is necessary first and foremost to produce wealth, and that it is not important how, before promoting any form of redistributive policy”, explained the Pope. “Others think that it is the same enterprise that must donate the crumbs of accumulated wealth, thus absolving it of its so-called ‘social responsibility’”. However, we know in achieving a new quality of the economy, it is possible to enable people to grow in all their potential. A member of a cooperative must not be merely … a worker … but must instead always be a protagonist, and must grow, through the co-operative, as a person, socially and professionally, in responsibility … an enterprise managed by a cooperative must grow in a truly co-operative way, involving all”.

4. Co-operation can strengthen the link between work and family – including “helping women to fully achieve their vocation and to put their talents to use” through initiatives that meet the needs of all, from nurseries to domestic care.

5. Use money wisely. Pope Francis says “you must invest, and you must invest well. In Italy certainly, but not only, it is difficult to obtain public funding to compensate for the scarcity of resources. The solution I propose to you is this: unite with determination the right means for carrying out good works. Collaborate more with cooperative banks and businesses, organise resources to allow families to live with dignity and serenity, and pay fair salaries to your workers. … Money, placed at the service of life, can be managed in the right way by the co-operative, if however it is an authentic and true co-operative, where capital does not rule over people, but people over capital”.

Co-ops must “promote an economy of honesty, a healing economy in the treacherous sea of the global economy. A real economy promoted by people who have at heart and in their minds only the common good”.

“It is necessary to have the courage and imagination to build the right road to integrate development, justice and peace throughout the world”, he concluded.

These are inspiring words, hopeful words. Pope Francis is, in the words of Dame Pauline Green of the International Co-operative Alliance who has spent time with him and talked of his upbringing in Argentina, ‘the Co-op Pope’.