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Putting economics at the heart of community development

Niamh Goggin of Small Change highlights how Big Local areas have empowered themselves to tackle economic issues in their communities.

By Niamh Goggin, Small Change.

One of the most interesting workshops I’ve ever been involved in was a Big Local event in Kingswood and Hazel Lees, Corby. The workshop was officially on ‘financial capability’; exploring how best to manage money through budgeting, borrowing, saving and buying. However, it became a discussion on economics; quantitative easing, money and currencies, bitcoins and blockchain. We identified ways in which big decisions made at national and international levels fed through to affect our lives in local communities.

That discussion would probably not have taken place if Local Trust had not signalled to Big Local areas that economic issues, big and small, were within their remit. Making it clear that the economy matters in community development has resulted in a flowering of engagement in economic development projects in Big Local areas.

Send clear signals that the economy matters in community development and that local people can change their local economy and its connection to regional, national and global economies.

The range of economic issues and opportunities addressed by Big Local partnerships is wide, but ‘community’ is at the heart of them all. Community assets, cafes, energy, hubs, land trusts, pubs, shares, shops and transport are among them.In each case, local consultation identified opportunities to strengthen the local community and developed an economic or business model to deliver local goods and services. Some of those models are not very resilient or sustainable. Others will be buffeted by a harsh external environment and will have to adapt to survive. However, local people are more likely to develop opportunities and solutions that are right for local conditions.

Identifying opportunities and developing and implementing solutions at community level is deeply empowering and changes the game from “them doing to us” to “us doing for and with us”.

One of the striking features of many Big Local partnerships is the recognition that business owners, managers and workers are community members too.A common feature of some Big Local areas is the parade of neighbourhood shops that, at one time, hosted a hairdresser’s, a butcher and greengrocer, a corner shop and a café. Now, they are more likely to contain a bookie’s, an off-licence, a high-cost-lender and a rent-to-buy shop. Partnerships have helped local businesses that are supported by the community, running street markets and events that increase footfall, providing advice and access to loans for new business start-ups and liaising between credit unions and local businesses to encourage local buying at Christmas and throughout the year. They have also campaigned against anti-social businesses and fixed odds betting machines.

Local businesses and local communities can survive and thrive together, making their areas better places to live and providing local work and enterprise opportunities.

Levels of stakeholder engagement can be very different, depending on who is holding the stake! We know that it’s not all about the money. However, if you, as a community stakeholder, never have any control of the budgets, you are a consultee but not a decider. It has been fascinating to watch the change in power dynamics when suddenly, “the community” is sitting on a pot of £1m and funds have dried up elsewhere. At worst, the community stakeholders can be paralysed by the responsibility and the need to be accountable for spending decisions. At best, they learn to use their pot of honey to gather the right stakeholders around them and build constructive partnerships to deliver on the community’s agenda.

There is now a different standard by which to judge “empowering” programmes; who actually makes the decisions on the spend?

In the new debates about devolution of power from the EU to Westminster to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or to city regions, can we speak up for radical devolution of powers and budget to local communities instead?


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