Post Covid-19: A manifesto for communities

10 Apr 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Apr 2020

Pic: Mike Erskine, Unsplash

The pandemic will change the world, that much we know. The challenge is to change it for the better. Nick Garbutt makes the case for developing community economies.

There have been some truly inspiring happenings even in these dark and miserable times. One of the most striking has been to witness the eruption of kindness within communities as neighbours get together to help each other.

Each action, however small, whether it is shopping for neighbours, donating to food banks, keeping an eye on older and vulnerable people helps to make our communities stronger. And resilient communities make for better, healthier societies. Together we are stronger. And this re-assertion of neighbourliness could be a springboard to so much more.

Indeed strengthening communities is already a central plank of government policy – it just needs more of a push both from policy-makers and communities themselves.

First some background.

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 2008 the then French president Nicholas Sarkozy became understandably dissatisfied with the way we traditionally measure how countries are performing - Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is a measure of the value of goods and services in a country.

It had continued to soar right up to the banking collapse because it failed to take into account increasing, unsustainable indebtedness. 

He commissioned two Nobel winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Amartya Sen of Harvard University, to examine the issue and propose alternatives.

Their report, which argued that GDP on its own was inadequate and that sustainability and human wellbeing should also be measured, was ground-breaking and attracted widespread attention from many governments.

The measurement and improvement of wellbeing became a global trend. An early adopter was David Cameron. In 2010 he said he wanted to adopt GWB (General Well Being) as opposed to GDP to measure progress. He said: "Wellbeing can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society's sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

Northern Ireland’s Programme for Government (PfG) comprises 14 strategic outcomes all focused on creating societal wellbeing.

Stronger, more resilient and more empowered  communities are central to that.

And some tentative progress has already been made.

Over the past few years local authorities have been developing Community Plans. This is a new approach to planning – the traditional method has been for the councils to decide what’s best for communities, community planning involves a recognition that local people are also experts on what’s best for where they live.

It is early days for this way of working – it involves a significant change of culture and cultural change within the public sector is not easy.

However it is also possible to see a route whereby communities can have a much greater voice in shaping their own development – and the increasing solidarity we are seeing during the pandemic may be a catalyst to that.

This may in turn lead to more communities taking over redundant public sector assets. There are hundreds of them across Northern Ireland: disused schools, health centres, police stations and strips of neglected land. Community organisations now have the right to bid for them through a Community Asset Transfer so long as they have community support and the capacity to deliver. The first of these was the acquisition of the old Bangor Court House by the Open House Festival for use as a permanent arts centre in the town.

Another simple, practical step which simultaneously strengthens communities and the democratic process would be to expand Participatory Democracy (PB) within councils. PB gives the power to communities to decide how money should be spent in their communities. It has been experimented in Northern Ireland but not on the scale seen in Brazil, Paris and New York. However the precedent is there and it is a logical extension of the community planning process.

What would really make a difference would be for Stormont to embrace and develop community economies on the extraordinarily successful Preston model.

A decade ago, Preston in Lancashire was in dire need of economic regeneration but, following the credit crunch in 2008, plans for re-development – based on significant inward investment - slowly withered until early this decade. Fresh thinking was required.

Preston is a part of England whose manufacturing heritage has been replaced by call centres and warehouses where jobs are too often secure only until the service is cheaper to provide elsewhere. Wealth is too often concentrated in distant market providers with little local economic or social return and low wages for local people which often have to be topped up with benefits.

This syndrome is one of the reasons why the UK can get wealthier without benefiting ordinary people and their communities.

So instead of chasing further outside investment, the council decided to harness local spending, as far as possible, working with economists to come up with a model based on social value, which has seen the city thrive. This concentration on building wealth from within would be a significant challenge for government but the success of Preston merits close attention.

The model relies on several steps to work. One consists of getting major local enterprises - "anchor institutions" that are, by necessity, based in the area (such as hospitals, local public services, universities, sports teams, etc) to spend their money using the metric of social value, rather than simply lowest price.

Social value means considering the wider implications of the money spent. It tends to result in a lot more money being spent locally as that will then stay in the community's economy (and ultimately benefit these anchor institutions too). The local authority also provides funding to boost social enterprises and co-operative businesses in the area, and to deliver goods and services to the anchor institutions.

Preston is also developing a local community bank in order to support these new businesses and keep the money circulating in the local economy. In Northern Ireland we already have a vibrant credit union movement that could play a similar role in supporting community economies.

There has been a lot written about how society will change after the pandemic. Much of it is wishful thinking.

However developing stronger communities is achievable not least because it is already happening, albeit slowly and those parts of it which are not already embedded in government policy have been tried and proven to work elsewhere.



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