Building community wealth in the cracks of a broken economy

Report from CLES’s Community Wealth Building Summit, held in Manchester, with input from economists and local authorities

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) held its annual Community Wealth Building summit in November, under the banner “Building Community Wealth in the Cracks of a Broken Economy”.

The event, held at Manchester music venue Band on the Wall, brought together representatives from the public, private and community sectors to explore how place-based economics can deliver the right outcomes for local communities in an era of increasing inequality and cash-strapped local authorities. 

CLES CEO Sarah Longlands opened the conference with a look back at the recent “chaos” of the pandemic and Brexit, as well as a look forward towards an upcoming general election, though she expressed doubts that the election will “lead to anything particularly dramatic”, adding: “I think the change will come from all of us.”

Longlands shared a recent conversation with a group of local authorities who said that the pandemic “made them collaborate, it enabled them to cut through the usual intertia and enabled them to take ownership of delivering action”.

However, when they took off their masks, things went back to normal. “We can’t afford to go back to the old ways. We have to be brave. We have to start delivering change today.”

CLES will be spending the next 12 months focusing on community wealth building within finance, land and planning as well as continuing to support work in procurement, employment and ownership, in its effort to “localise the basics, support the transition to net zero and push back against extraction”.

A video input from economist Ann Pettifor highlighted the impact of an unregulated global financial system on local governments and communities. 

“We need to bring offshore capital back onshore, and we can begin to do that by the localization of the economy,” she said.

Pettifor challenged local authority representatives to think about how they can “disrupt the grip of predatory globalisation”, “localise the economy to raise the skills, standards and wages of citizens”, decentralise the energy system and challenge globalised markets.

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Economist Kevin Albertson followed up Pettifor’s contribution with an appeal for devolution, saying: “If we’re going to have a radical readjustment to reduce inequality, we need a radical readjustment in our democracy.” He added that power needs to be devolved down “to the lowest possible level, to local authorities, or even lower levels.”

Albertson also advised people to strengthen the local economy by avoiding buying online and supporting local businesses instead.

Manchester and Islington council leaders Bev Craig and Kaya Comer-Schwartz shared the perspective of local authorities, as well as some of the work they have been doing to build wealth in the communities they serve.

Comer-Schwartz pointed to Islington’s co-operative development agency as an example of local authorities supporting local people’s agency and empowerment, and “how we must not just do ‘to’ people but do ‘with’ people”.

The afternoon’s sessions began with a preview of CLES’s new paper ‘This Must Be the Place: A New Vision for Community Wealth and Power’. The paper focuses on the work of local governments and their partners as drivers of community wealth building, including challenges, opportunities and best practice.

A number of breakout sessions followed, reflecting four key policy recommendations made in the report: Take back control (of regeneration); Make investment work harder, Measure the Change, and Grow Your Own, a session looking at how councils are using their financial power to create demand in the local economy.

Delegates also heard from guest speaker Chris Ko on how his charitable organisation, United Way of Greater Los Angeles, works with the private sector, prompting a discussion about the potential opportunities and limitations of partnering with shareholder-owned businesses to build an inclusive economy. 

In her opening remarks, Longlands had invited delegates to consider the words restoration, resolve and release, when thinking about the conversations taking place that day – restoration of both our environment and public services, the resolve needed to take action, and the release of power to local communities. 

“We know what needs to be done,” she said. “We just need the guts to deliver, to own it and to see it through. The bravery to lead rather than to be led, to step out of our comfort zones, into the fear zone, in order to build something new.”