James Henderson explores the roots of CWB in the Basque Country and Cleveland before looking at the need for place specific responses in Scotland while keeping an eye on what the goals must be.

James Henderson works on participatory research and policy development with the community sector: more recently within What Works Scotland, Smart Urban Intermediaries (including SURF), and currently at Edinburgh Futures Institute. A report on ‘digital and urban commons’ with Oliver Escobar is in the pipeline and he has recently produced three briefings for Local Government Information Unit members on CWB and the Community Economy.

SURF’s Conference presentations and discussions spurred his imagination to look to the roots of CWB and its associations with the community economy, before picking-up on key Conference concerns for resourcing of substance and cross-sector working …

In one sense many of those leading the development of CWB initially in the USA, and now Scotland/UK, would point to inspiration from the Mondragon cooperatives and related cooperative education movement in the Basque Country (Spain): moving from local faith-based social and economic community development since the 1940s to an extensive network of cooperative businesses and a University. However, at the heart of the current interest, has surely been firstly the Global Financial Crisis in 2007/8 – and the cracks in the current local-to-global political economic system showing as austerity, inequalities, social polarisation, questioning of democratic institutions, rising autocracy, international resource-conflicts and more; and, secondly and increasingly so, the now very tangible ecological crisis, nay emergency, and its impacts on the poorest on the planet, nature and potentially all of us.

The Democratic Collaborative in the USA has been a prime mover and the early influential work with the Evergreen Cooperatives (the Cleveland Model), where local hospital procurement contracts have helped to build substantial local cooperative businesses in black, working-class neighbourhoods (so place-making), has resulted in an expanding network of diverse initiatives. Likewise in the UK, and influenced by the US experience, the work of CLES and Preston City Council and partners, as a city-wide and regional (Lancashire) model, has provided potent inspiration across the UK; informing the approached developing through North Ayrshire Council (and Ayrshire), itself inspiring the Scottish Government, five pilots and other initiatives.

CWB, however, as an approach is diverse and adaptive and part of a yet wider body of emerging approaches: foundational economy; new municipalism; platform municipalism; and public value governance … and increasingly linking to the social economy via cooperatives, community economic development, community ownership/land trusts, public-community partnerships, and ‘the commons’ (digital, social, ecological). Each is pointing to new aspirations for the role of the state in developing locally-focused, progressive business and employment models … and often ‘hidden away’ inside all of this are key roles for local community sector bodies (community anchors, enterprises and coops), local trade unions and local civil society more generally e.g. equalities groups, faith groups, environmental movement and so on.

CLES’ five progressive pillars – procurement, assets, finance, employment, ownership – provide a very pragmatic entry point into thinking further about practical steps to support local economic, social and sustainable development. However, international emerging developments, and in Preston in particular, reveal the need for complex shared working, dialogue and understanding (theory and practice) and engaging with key questions that include:

  • multi-layered (ultra-local to regional) and collaborative leadership across political bodies, public sector, local/regionally-committed business, community sector and wider civil society
  • ongoing discussions as to what locally-led generative, well-being economies should be like – and the roles of participatory democracy, education and training in building local knowledge
  • very practical, clear-headed thinking and committed leadership on how to resource and invest in effective local economic, social and sustainable development.

SURF’s recent conference on Community Wealth Building saw both speakers and participants seeking to engage across these key questions and issues. Discussions at my table, for instance, flagged the need for both long-term investment strategies in the development of the community sector and new opportunities for the local state to raise and make decisions on investment e.g. taxation, responsibilities, and so on. And, implicitly, therefore that the two need to being work together.

The ‘Preston model’ points towards the role of committed leadership via organic initiatives outside of formal partnership structures as crucial in leading change. This, for instance, supported the development of extensive progressive procurement strategies across five-plus public sector bodies – as illustrated in CLES’ 2019 report, with further research from the University of Central Lancashire to follow – that supported local and regional businesses in winning contracts, commitment to the Real Living Wage, and can be related to falling levels of unemployment in the area.

However, for many smaller community enterprises and coops working at low-levels (non-commercial) of economic return – yet undertaking crucial, complex and inter-relating economic, social, environmental, democratic and digital activities – other strategies are needed. Here, ‘Community Investment (Legacy) Funds’ that offer patient low-interest capital and/or grants, and relevant networks and advice (business and more) are more the order of the day. There’s considerable scope for developing these such Funds, with local taxation (and precepts in England) and windfall taxes as one source. The Community Bond model successfully piloted by Scottish Communities Finance provides another key opportunity – and with the potential to develop higher-incoming generating activity via renewables and/or property to feed into such a Fund. Community benefits, social value, planning gain and infrastructure levies offer another route to. Skilled development support via community sector bodies (e.g. DTA Scotland, P4P, Scottish Community Alliance), climate-emergency hubs, economic development teams etc. would be crucial; and there would be potential for wider community-oversight as local Development Councils or similar.

In thinking about the role that SURF’s CWB Practitioner Network could play here in building a shared agenda – across the Five Pillars, and including community economy development – there is surely a need to keep hold of central objectives: anti-poverty work; working within ecological constraints and Net-Zero; and, building resilient organisations and networks. Yet, also to think pragmatically, and for both shorter- and longer-terms, about investment (resources-to-scale), skilled support and cross-sector credibility (belief in each). Given the sustained and urgent challenges presented by the cost-of-living crisis, climate-emergency (and related), and economic and social impacts of the pandemic, the Network could play the crucial role in locating and sharing honest stories that bring together Pillars, visions and pragmatics … most likely as organic informal approaches in which cross-sector, horizontal, bottom-up, and top-down (sanction and sanctuary) leadership must each play their part.

If you would like to join SURF’s Community Wealth Building Network please email emma@surf-old.local