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How communities are reshaping the economy from the bottom up

In this blog, Hazel Sheffield, author of our latest essay shares what she learned from three Big Local areas tackling economic pressures

October 2018

Read the essay: 'Building wealth' and listen to the podcast: 'Grow your own economy'

“This started when I had been on the road for 18 months documenting local economies emerging in the aftermath of austerity and Brexit through interviews and short films and making a map of where some of the most exciting new ideas were emerging.

I had met Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust, on these travels and he told me about Big Local and how it was giving a million pounds of lottery money to over 100 of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK.

For many of the people I’d met, money was the biggest barrier to getting stuff done. The idea that someone was giving these communities a million pounds and letting them decide what to do with it seemed bonkers and also brilliant. Surely by giving communities cash, they would be able to fix everything in the ways they wanted.

The reality of course was much more complicated.

Economic backdrop

After I agreed to do the essay the first Big Local area I visited was Morecambe in March. I found a community in the middle of dealing with a crisis brought on by cuts.

An ITV newsreel broadcast in winter 2017 showed working mums relying on food banks to feed their children; teachers at a local primary school washing pupils’ uniforms and charging their parents’ mobile phones; and doctors who had seen cases of rickets and other diseases usually found in developing countries.

It quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about “growth” in a place that’s dealing with crises in health, housing and food. The metrics that I was going out with weren’t able to describe the reality that I found. Inclusive growth implies that the system is working when actually the opposite was true.

In Thurrock in Essex, 72 per cent of people voted for Brexit. Neil Woodbridge, who runs a social enterprise for people with disabilities, told me people voted to leave because they felt like the Government had forgotten about them. He said: “It wasn’t anything to do with racism, it was about you lot in London with your high rents and your stupid mortgages have forgotten about us white working-class boys.”

Everywhere people told me they felt sick of being told that if they work a bit harder or a bit longer, they will be able to get ahead. In Hartlepool, there are six people for every ten jobs. Sacha Bedding, the chief executive of a charity in the Dyke House area I visited, told me that the idea of growth is a fantasy.

This calls for new ideas.

Building wealth

These areas need a way to do community wealth building that doesn’t rely on big anchors and budgets. In the US, a non-profit called the Democracy Collaborative has been working on this idea. They have found that smaller communities can start to create chains of value by turning income, such as Big Local funding, into assets.

The Big Local areas I visited were already doing this:

  • At the Exchange, a creative centre in Morecambe, two young women called Beki and Jo have been crowdfunding to buy empty buildings and turn them into workspaces for artists and entrepreneurs.
  • In Hartlepool, Sacha Bedding has been looking to match Big Local money with other streams of funding to buy houses to provide stable rent for members of the community.
  • In Thurrock, in Essex, Andy Blakey and the Grays Riverside Partnership have invested in the Lightship Cafe, which trains young people struggling with mental health to work in the kitchen.

Assets don’t always need to be physical buildings. They can be people - like Connor Hammond, a young grime artist. He was supported by Grays Riverside to open a recording studio in Essex that has provided a safe space for young people involved in gangs.

Or Callum Hills, the young man on the front of the essay. Big Local is supporting him as he trains as a youth worker in Hartlepool.

This is the wealth in the title of my essay. Wealth comes not from having money, but from ownership of the means to make money, or ownership of assets that pay returns in the long term.

In 2017, 82 per cent of wealth generated across the world went to the richest one per cent of the global population. Big Local is a rare opportunity for people excluded from this wealth to start to create their own, by investing in people and places.

This opportunity is not to be taken lightly. We cannot bury our heads in the sand that economic growth, for most people, is a mere fantasy. Brexit is the biggest warning of the consequences when we do.

But for community wealth building and other alternatives to take root, communities need to have access to fresh ideas and frameworks through training and sharing knowledge. They need to have the funding and support to start to invest where it counts.

Big Local is only the beginning.”

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