Local economies Power and leadership

Community wealth building: there’s power in the people  

Ross Miller, former chair of Dover Big Local, considers how we can develop and build wealth at the neighbourhood level and what might need to change at a national level to encourage this.  

Putting people first

Community wealth is and can be defined in many ways from pure financial wealth, through things like community facilities to the health and wellbeing of residents. It is complex and intertwined with and dependent upon the local and national economy, local and national policy and local attitudes.  

For me, the start of any discussion on this topic is the recognition that the real wealth in communities lies in the people, their skills, competencies, attitudes, behaviours and aspirations. Without people we literally have nothing, so it is imperative that they are at the heart of everything we do to create and retain wealth locally.  

Big Local has provided excellent insight and evidence into what happens when people are empowered to take a much greater degree of control over their locality, their lives, to be involved in the decisions that impact them and to be afforded the opportunity not only to utilise the skills they have but also to learn new skills. This is also true of areas that have a strong sense of place and community and those that have strong community-based networks and perhaps most importantly an understanding and engaged local authority. So how do we harness this wealth?  

Using the Big Local approach

First and foremost, we need to understand what people want, then work with them to devise strategies and a plan to support them and help them deliver. As Big Local has demonstrated, the old fashioned “we know best”, “top down” approach is no longer a viable option in facilitating meaningful change at any level of our society; particularly in the face of some of the biggest challenges in generations: Brexit and its consequences and more profoundly climate change and environmental damage. But is this about wealth generation? Yes it is! But we cannot generate and retain wealth without understanding what people want and more importantly, how they want to (re)build their communities in response to these enormous challenges.  

For many people the most important thing is to provide adequate and meaningful employment locally, that gives them with the opportunity to not only meet their financial commitments but also save for their future.  

For some a job is enough, for others a degree of meaning is essential to make a difference and for some, what they really want is to make their own job through running their own business. All of these are interlinked, and we must not consider business creation as the sole means of work related wealth creation; we need to see local businesses create jobs for local people and wherever possible purchasing from other local businesses.

Supporting local businesses

It is imperative that we find ways to support and help de-risk the creation of businesses that want to make a difference whether these are formally constituted social enterprises, worker co-operatives or businesses with a social ethos. It is worth recognising that the UK, whilst no longer a nation of shopkeepers, is a nation of small businesses; over 60% of all employment is with SMEs and micro businesses.

We should also remember that most of these owners have risked everything to set their business up and to make it successful to the point of being able to employ people. It is not unreasonable for them to want a reward for their risk, but there are alternatives to traditional entrepreneurship and capitalism. These alternative structures and forms of business ownership are an important tool in engaging and becoming grounded in one’s local community and setting the key foundations for future success.  

The alternatives range from Community Interest Companies, Community Benefit Societies, Worker Co-operatives. The key for all of these is that they consider and engage a much wider group in defining their purpose and vision leading to true grounding in their community and hopefully greater likelihood of long-term success, in turn creating wealth for owners, workers and the wider community.  

Building wealth from the ground up

So, what does this mean for local wealth? It means that as communities we need to really understand what our community wants and needs and understand what existing skills they have to make a difference. This can help us to identify skills gaps and work with local collegestraining providers and employers to fill them. We should also be challenging local businesses to adapt to meet the needs of their communities to make them the go to offering for local people.  

Most importantly, in all of this, we must not lose sight of the value of people, the wealth that they bring to an area and the fact that their voices and opinions are what matter most.   

This blog is part of a series exploring how community wealth building can work in neighbourhoods.