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!