The West Midlands Forum for Growth? Well if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.

I attended the West Midlands Forum for Growth yesterday at Resorts World. It was the official conference of the West Midlands Combined Authority, and I was attending on one of two free tickets given to civil society bodies, as part of the group of civil society organisations aiming to have a voice in combined authority matters. Tickets in general cost somewhere in the low hundreds of pounds.

In Andy Street’s keynote address, he told us the WMCA would be judged on its performance on two issues: growth, and public services and the lives of citizens. He said that although we were performing well on the first, we were not delivering well on the second. He said that there was no purpose in economic growth[i] if does not deliver the improvements in the lives of citizens.

This was a really important and honest admission for our mayor to make, at the start of an event that harnessed one day’s worth of the thinking power of hundreds of people in positions of significant power and with years of experience. It should have been the start of a challenging and free-thinking discussion about how we would make sure this happened.

There was a general sense of positivity in the room – that the West Midlands authorities were now seriously collaborating and that the devolution deal, land use and investment policies being followed were going to lead to opportunities. I didn’t really share that sense: I was thinking about Andy’s statement and wanting to discuss how we could address this need and make the West Midlands’ agenda deliver prosperity that was shared fully across its people with public services that met their needs.

But that discussion did not happen. There was nothing really different or challenging. The solutions are to have the biggest site, the fastest train, the tallest building, the greatest growth – the illusory trickle down of machoeconomics.

What about exploring the inclusive prosperity potential to be gained from enabling small development on small sites, not just big development on big sites? What about increasing local ownership? Fostering local supply chains? Raising the lowest wages? A focus, as with our social care report with New Economics Foundation, on the ‘foundational economy’, of providing the things that we all need such as food, energy, care, education?

A discussion on ‘liveability’ towards the end covered many of the right things about wellbeing but didn’t really address how the growth agenda should achieve them. It was more as if liveability was something you did in order to create more growth, not something that growth needed to achieve.

Belatedly, I started to realise what this event was really for. The vast majority of attendance, alongside public sector people, were in roles relating to development: (architects, developers, project management). There was little input from voluntary sector or small business, let alone of course from active citizens. There was none of the cross-sector debate about how policy can make a real difference, as there was at regional conferences of the early noughties[ii]. I assume that all those present had an interest in being enthusiastic about the agenda in order to facilitate access to new developments in whatever capacity they were operating. While they might have cared about it, their role and expertise was not to help deliver policy, investment and practice that meet those public needs.

This, I guess, is fine. There probably SHOULD be an event (probably in a car-centric and unsustainable consumer-orientated venue[i], probably for a prohibitive fee) that brings such people together to create a positive buzz around the devolution agenda and to network about the business opportunities that will result.

But should that event be the official Combined Authority conference? Given the Combined Authority’s remit that Andy laid out, does its real conference need to bring in a wider range of perspectives, some experts in public services and local economics, in a vastly more participative format (I counted 4 questions from the audience in 6 hours) and perhaps not charge them £300 for doing so?

We’d be happy to support such a WMCA conference in 2018.

Karen Leach

[i] I cycled there and back. Alongside the asphyxiating fumes, the only way out as a cyclist was take the third exit off the M42/A45 roundabout in three lanes of motorway-hungry traffic. I am sure I lost one of my nine lives.

[i] Yes, we are aware of the the grim realities of the impacts of such growth on our future on a finite planet. Having gone many steps backward since the not-ideal era of Regional Development Agencies, we’re currently aeons from being able to debate this. Instead, we hope to enable policymakers to see that other objectives and measures are more critical, and that this will reduce the focus on, and eventually the impact of, such growth. We know that this won’t be in time to stop dangerous levels of climate change or the depletion of finite resources, but we have to start somewhere.

[ii] And no, I never thought I would be highlighting those as pinnacles of sustainability and social inclusion.

Changing local economies to work for people who feel excluded

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A link has been received to a Guardian report about the ‘Preston model’ – for background information see Clifford Singer’s interesting article on the Next System Project’s website.

Councillor Matthew Brown, Preston city council cabinet member for social justice, inclusion and community engagement, devised this model. 12 of the city’s key employers were helped to reorganise their supply chains and identify where they could buy goods and services locally, stopping 61% of their procurement budget being spent outside the Lancashire economy. The employers included ‘anchor institutions’ such as:

  • the county constabulary,
  • a public sector housing association,
  • colleges
  • and hospitals

Since 2011, Lancashire council’s central government grant had been reduced from £30m to £18m, leading to cuts in everything from community engagement to parks and the leisure centre. “The intention was to devolve cuts and blame it on us,” Brown says. “But you can become more self-sufficient.”

The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2013 now allows public bodies in England to take into account the social, environmental and economic impact of their commissioning. A key step was to redirect lucrative contracts, such as printing services for the police and food for council buildings, towards local business and the city council doubled its procurement spending with Preston companies from 14% in 2012-13 to 28% in 2014-15.

Brown and his colleagues want to build a city where workers are in control of wealth, improving people’s sense of citizenship. “We’ve got the public pension fund to invest in student housing, we’re looking at setting up a local bank to give business loans and for the local authority to become an energy provider,” he says. “You put all that together and you can see how we are developing the infrastructure for a new economy.”

The model was inspired by cooperatively run communities in Cleveland, Ohio and the world’s largest co-operative group, Mondragón, in the Basque region of Spain, and has been cited in speeches by the shadow chancellor John McDonnell and other councils, including Birmingham, Rochdale and Sheffield have taken an interest in the initiative.

Matthew Brown has worked with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, a Manchester-based think tank with considerable experience of working collaboratively with local authorities and other institutions to boost local economies.

CLES is  working in Birmingham with Localise West Midlands because for many years LWM has made the case for more inclusive, ‘locally grown’ economies – see its ground-breaking report, Mainstreaming Community Economic Development. The focus is on those ‘anchor institutions’ which have a major impact on the city.  As part of a separate initiative, LWM is working with the New Economics Foundation, CLES and New Start. They have brought together a group of local practitioners from the region which has suggested a focus on health and social care. Read on here.

Brown believes that as a result of the financial crisis and its aftermath people are ready to hear a radically different way of thinking about politics and that Corbyn can win a Labour party victory in 2020. Until then, Preston is backing the northern powerhouse initiative to secure devolution, allowing it to build what Brown believes are the foundations of a new economy away from the City and Westminster.

“The days of getting huge inward investments are over, so the sensible way is looking at how you can do that through your local area to make something new,” he says. “This is it.”

 

 

 

Corbyn focusses on decentralisation: localising energy and transport

corbyn-eee-manifestoJeremy Corbyn has launched an environmental manifesto that outlines plans for the UK to achieve 65% of energy from renewable sources by 2030 – without fracking.

Corbyn proposes to put cities, councils, devolved governments and communities at the heart of an efficient, decentralised energy system by promoting a shift to electric and hydrogen buses and cars; a network of low-emission zones and cycling with safe cycle lanes and hire schemes in every town and city.

The manifesto places social enterprises, including not-for-profits and co-ops at the heart of Corbyn’s plans for a “publicly run, locally accountable energy system”.

A “publicly run, locally accountable energy system”.

In a speech in Nottingham, the Labour leader said, “We want Britain to be the world’s leading producer of renewable technology. To achieve this, we will accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, and drive the expansion of the green industries and jobs of the future, using our National Investment Bank to invest in public and community-owned renewable energy. This will deliver clean energy and curb energy bill rises for households; an energy policy for the 60 million, not the Big 6 energy companies.”

He has promised to promote over a thousand local energy companies in the next parliament and legislate to give community energy co-operatives the right to sell energy directly to the communities they serve.

Housing

It would launch a National Home Insulation plan to insulate at least 4 million homes and phase out coal-fired power by 2025. The Labour leader estimates over 300,000 jobs would be created in the renewables sector as a result of these measures.

corbyn-eee-graphic

Labour would reinstate the department for energy and climate change in its first month of going back into government, as part of its plan to rebuild and transform Britain, “so that no-one and no community is left behind,” he said at the event in Nottingham.

Jeremy Corbyn also encourages the British public to take action as individuals to help to meet the Paris climate agreement. He proposes to use the precautionary principle to protect the environment and people from harm – not a pay-to-pollute approach allowing the richest corporations and individuals to wreck our planet.

 

 

 

Post-Brexit we need to build an economy for the many

‘Home-grown solutions’

neil mcinroyYesterday, Ann (West Midlands New Economics Group) sent a link to an article by Neil McInroy (right), chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. CLES focusses on economic development and regeneration, ‘promoting and implementing new progressive economic activities which create positive environmental, health and social outcomes’.

It was recently published in the New Start magazine under the title given and a few highlights are offered here:

“Framed by austerity, the economic reality behind many voters choosing Brexit was a future of little promise – insecure jobs, insecure public provision, insecure futures. As a result, many leave voters felt that they had little or nothing to lose. On the back of an economic recession eight years ago, insecurity and a social recession has been built . . .

“Maybe the game is up now? Brexit may now consume the energies of Whitehall and the treasury. The rhetoric and promise of more devolution from Whitehall may at best slow, if not stop. We can hope for more and deeper devolution, but I suspect this is a forlorn hope. More importantly, there is a pressing task in reducing the existing pain and hardship and addressing deteriorating community relations and cohesion.

“In this, the local economic development community, local politicians and potential Metro mayoral candidates have a responsibility. They must strive to protect and build progressive economic and social policy. They must look toward home-grown solutions, and radical innovations across public, social and commercial sectors. They must adopt a pro-social approach to local economic development. This is less about treasury-backed local agglomeration policies, boomgoggling promises and trickle down. This is about stimulating local demand, social investment, addressing city-wide inequalities and the economics of social cohesion. Progressive local solutions are out there. We need to be bold in accelerating them.

“I would hope the newly-formed commission on inclusive growth . . . (will) use its influence to broaden its narrow growth-within-austerity remit, and explore how to build a truly democratic, inclusive and resilient economy within fairly-funded public services.

“The Brexit vote was in part prompted by a sense that people felt abandoned by the economy, and the state. This has created a new local economic and political reality, and with it come great dangers. As such we must avoid deepening the social recession and accelerating the divides between the haves and the have-nots. It is imperative that we now build an economy for the many and not just the few”.

Read the whole article here: http://newstartmag.co.uk/your-blogs/post-brexit-need-economy-many/

Roundtable meeting: Shaping the Combined Authority’s economic agenda

We are organising a West Midlands Civil Society Forum roundtable meeting to discuss and influence how the Combined Authority’s economic agenda can best meet the needs of all communities and neighbourhoods. This will be on Thursday 9th June at 4pm in Birmingham. Venue to be confirmed. It is open to all interested civil society organisations in the area – although as a roundtable meeting there are limited places.

As background – we have been involved in establishing a West Midlands Civil Society Forum, to provide a voice for civil society into Combined Authority decision-making. We are at early stages – with positive noises from the Combined Authority about our role – and are seeking new organisational members. For more information and to join the wider Forum, click here.

Although still in embryonic form, the Forum is establishing working groups on issues that the Combined Authority will be addressing, and is aiming to engage as much of civil society as possible in these discussions. This roundtable is part of that process: as an immediate outcome its results will be summarised in a short statement and fed into the Combined Authority leadership to be taken into account in its decision-making. In the longer term we hope to establish an economics, training and development working group to continue engagement with the Combined Authority.

If you’re interested in attending, please email karen@localisewestmidlands.org.uk telling us what civil society organisation you represent and we will let you know if there are still spaces.

If you can’t make the meeting, but would like to contribute to our thinking, please send us an email with your thoughts and we will feed this in and keep you informed. And don’t forget you can join the wider forum as above.

Karen Leach (LWM) and Ted Ryan (RnR)

Localism: a rescue plan for British democracy

A notable omission from Localise West Midlands’ extensive range of articles about, or with references to localism, is a review of a book by Simon Jenkins: Big Bang Localism: a rescue plan for British democracy.

big bang localismIn this book he attributes the decline in British voter interest and participation to the over-centralisation of power in Whitehall, ‘one of the most centralised governments in the West’. As turnouts in elections are dwindling, he notes, many are turning to ad hoc pressure groups and direct action.

Centralisation has not worked well, Jenkins believes; levels of satisfaction with health care, education and policing are lower in Britain than almost anywhere in the developed world. He notes a change in public opinion which once, on the whole, believed that the British government works well and is now shifting to a belief that it needs improving, citing contemporary YouGov polls showing a rise in discontent with public services and health care

Twelve years later the need to heed Jenkins’ pre Corbyn message has never been greater as the established on the political left and right frantically attempt to discredit and unseat a democratically elected party leader.

He noted that Britain’s local councillors are outnumbered three-to-one by 60,000 unelected people serving on roughly 5,200 local quangos, managing various functions that may be local but are no longer under local democratic control. Examples include health service, housing, prisons, training and economic development.

Jenkins points out that, across Europe, countries have spent the past two decades refreshing their local democracy – even traditionally centralised countries like France have devolved. The USA operates the most decentralised system of government and in these countries, public services are delivered more locally than in Britain – and win greater public trust as a result.

He sets out a programme for a ‘democratic Big Bang’, to return power to the local level, including control over health, police and education services, to re-enfranchise the British people:

Counties and cities should run:

  • health services
  • secondary schools
  • policing
  • the prison and probation services
  • youth employment and training
  • planning.

Municipalities and parishes should run whatever gives a community its pride and visual character:

  • primary schools
  • old people’s homes
  • nurseries and day-care centres
  • clinics and surgeries
  • parks and sports centres.

Local services should mostly be funded by local taxation, which should be raised from a combination of:

  • residential property tax
  • business rates
  • local income tax.

Jenkins proposes that central government funding of local services should take the form of a block grant, determined by the Local Democracy Commissioner and paid to local authorities with no strings attached.

The “enemies of localism” are vested interests and the national media, but devolution in Scotland and Wales shows that people prefer decisions about local services to be made locally. Simon Jenkins recommends that the Big Bang should start with a “bonfire of central controls” and an end to targets and official league tables, adding “Big Bang Localism is the answer to the failure of Britain’s public services and the loss of faith in British democracy”.

The latest neighbourhood initiative: ShirleyTOPS

shirley tops header

ShirleyTOPS is a community focused web site designed to encourage Shirley residents to support local businesses. It promotes around 500 businesses that trade across the Shirley area, listing shops by category – with clubs, nurseries, doctors, schools and a range of organisations promoted as well as over 500 places to shop or relax and enjoy a drink or meal. There is also a useful section on units to let.

shirley tops graphic

Developed at no cost to Shirley businesses, or the council tax payer, the ShirleyTOPS web site is sponsored by The Solihull Green Party. The content has been made possible thanks to hundreds of hours of input by volunteers.

Councillor Howard Allen sends the link: http://www.shirleytops.co.uk/. He writes:

Shirley high street in particular has suffered recently as Parkgate, instead of bringing the promised high street ‘names’, competes with the high street by adding to the number of bargain and charity shops. The situation is not desperate but some quick action is needed to halt and reverse the decline. Hopefully, the ShirleyTOPS web site will help by encouraging residents to support the local economy and shop locally rather than travelling further afield.

If anyone wants a club or society advertised and it’s not already on ShirleyTOPS then please just let me know. There is a contact form on the website for all to use.

shirley banner

Shirley Greens will be regularly advertising the ShirleyTOPS website to the over 16,000 homes in Shirley asking residents to use local businesses wherever possible. The Shirley Greens will also be direct mailing everyone who moves to Shirley to both advise them of all the things on offer in the area and again asking them to support their local businesses.

We are very happy to advertise any promotional activity being undertaken by any Shirley business or community group. All they need to do is let us have the details and we will add them to the ShirleyTOPS web site.

Please spread the word and also let me know of any businesses or organisations you think I have missed.

===============================================
Cllr Howard Allen – Shirley West ward, Solihull MBC

Time Banks summary

Assembled because of the 15th October, Public Timebanking event in Birmingham

The world’s first time bank is said to have been established in 1973 by a Japanese woman. The benefits that older time bank members derived included formation of new friendship networks to replace those lost by retirement and the chance to use old skills and learn new ones. Time banks can generate a new form of social capital that fosters traditional Japanese reciprocity and has ikigai or ‘sense of meaning in life’ as one of its main pillars. See Elizabeth Miller’s thesis, submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University June 2008.

time banks boyle coverDavid Boyle, who helped to found the London Time Bank, wrote a 2001 briefing, published on the New Economics Foundation blog, setting out a practical prescription for community time banks, that can release human resources to tackle deep-rooted social problems and also provide practical and effective solutions for a range of public policy problems. Download here.

The time bank idea was further developed at the London School of Economics by Washington law professor Edgar Cahn in 1986, who describes the idea as working like a blood bank or babysitting club: “Help a neighbour and then, when you need it, a neighbour – most likely a different one – will help you. The system is based on equality: one hour of help means one time dollar, whether the task is grocery shopping or making out a tax return… Credits are kept in individual accounts in a ‘bank’ on a personal computer. Credits and debits are tallied regularly. Some banks provide monthly balance statements, recording the flow of good deeds.”

time-bank graphic

Our database first records a reference to a 2001 letter to Ed Mayo, then director of the New Economics Foundation, enclosing a donation for the Time Bank work with a local reference:

“I rather like our South Birmingham LETS social fund, which enables elderly and/or frail people who are not LETS members to use the appropriate services – shopping, sitting, gardening etc. It costs nothing except members’ donations of Hearts to the fund. Where Time Banks will perhaps work better is in becoming better known – forming linkages with Health Centres and other organisations – because the gripe here is that the fund is not used enough”.

The Farmers Guardian (26.10.01) recorded that the Cumbria Rural Women’s Network was helping women to train or retrain, set up or expand their businesses. The network catered for 16-year-olds upwards with some 15 local networks bringing women together on a geographic or common interest such as a wool group. Voluntary co-ordinators and mentors – successful business women or rural women with professional training – advised and supported budding entrepreneurs. The commitment was repaid by the time bank – this means that their time is repaid by an equivalent amount of someone else’s work or training time.

In its 2002 Social Enterprise Strategy (now archived) the Department of Trade and Industry highlighted the remarkable upsurge in competitive social enterprises – credit unions, social firms, housing co-operatives, fair-trade and ecological enterprises, managed workspaces, farmers’ markets, recycling initiatives, employment services, community shops, arts ventures, social care co-operatives and time banks.

James Robertson’s Newsletter No. 8 – December 2005, brought news of a Municipal Time Bank: ”The Overstrand Municipality in Hermanus is running this project in partnership with SANE and the Embassy of Finland. It enables poor people in the municipality to reduce their debts or pay for services, and the municipality gains the value of the work they do. The benefits of this Community Exchange System (CES) are that people work for each other and their communities. This encourages people to identify and use their skills to meet local needs, builds the local economy and community, and compensates for cashlessness.

2015

time banking logo

http://timebank.org.uk/

Is a quiet political revolution getting under way?

As the old order with its class and gender hierarchies gave way, George Monbiot points out that the void filled with junk could have been occupied by a better society, built on mutual support and connectedness, without the stifling stratification of the old order.

The feast to which we were invited is only for the few’

foe logoInstead, as the developed world – saturated with advertising, the handmaiden of market fundamentalism – became reliant on rising consumption to avert economic collapse, he notes that Friends of the Earth has begun to explore how we might reconnect with each other and with the natural world. New models for urban living are based on sharing rather than competitive consumption:

  • the sharing of cars and appliances and tools,
  • of money (through credit unions and micro-finance) and power.
  • community-led decision-making, over transport, planning and, perhaps, rent levels, minimum and maximum wages,
  • municipal budgets and taxation.

Such initiatives, facilitated by the state can bring people together with a sense of shared purpose, ownership and mutual support that centralised decision-making can never provide. But in some areas, non-party political movements are achieving this without that elusive government facilitation

Independents

Peter Macfadyen, Kate Bielby and Mel Usher of Independents for Frome
Peter Macfadyen, Kate Bielby and Mel Usher of Independents for Frome

Today, a neighbour gave the writer a cutting about Frome’s declaration of independence.

This Somerset market town has developed “flatpack democracy”, taking political power at a local level and enabling people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Independents for Frome took all 17 seats on Frome’s town council, with vote-shares as high as 70%, and support from people who cast their other votes for the main political parties.  

Localism in action

Though local Conservatives were convinced that austerity had to apply even at the most local level, the council has borrowed around £750,000 to invest in buildings and land:

  • green spaces have been spruced up
  • game-changing help has been given to the local credit union
  • he council is involved in a new renewable energy cooperative,
  • and has put money into the setting up of a new “share shop”

In Devon the Buckfastleigh Independents group have followed a similar path. the town’s new deputy mayor, Pam Barrett says the town is ”a working-class town that’s been suffering from a real loss of services.” After fighting – successfully – to keep open a library and swimming pool, she and other residents stood for town council seats that had not been contested for “20 or more years”. One of the catalysts, she says, was a box of 10 copies of the Flatpack Democracy booklet, which was brought in by one of her colleagues. On 7 May, they also took nine of 12 seats, and started running the show.

Flatpack Democracy ideas are being shared with other groups in Devon and Somerset and though people in Alderley Edge, Cheshire were not aware of developments in the West Country, their thinking is much the same: as one newly elected councillor, Mike Dudley-Jones, said: “our basic mantra is that there is no place for mainstream party politics at this level”.

On election day, Conservatives lost all nine of the parish council’s seats to this group – Alderley Edge First – which also took the village’s one seat on Cheshire East council.

Community energy solutions: Plymouth

In 2012 Plymouth’s co-operative city council established a Low Carbon City Team, which helped to identify the city’s potential for community energy solutions and forge partnerships. The council funded pre-development, initial community engagement and business plan development.

plymouth bencom header

In 2013 it joined forces with local residents to form Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) which then set up a second Industrial & Provident community benefit society (Bencom), PEC Renewables, to fund and manage renewable energy installations. PEC has 850 members, 95% of whom are local residents, and the number is rising, with more joining as the current share offer progresses.

Marie-Claire Kidd reports that Plymouth’s energy future is changing. PEC Renewables launched its first share offer in February 2014. It closed after seven weeks, oversubscribed at £602,000, with 144 investor members, around half of them local. This enabled it to install free solar photovoltaics on 18 schools and three community buildings between May and November 2014.

pec investors

The installations, which collectively represent 0.78 megawatts, are now generating half-price electricity for their community building hosts. Surplus electricity is sold to the grid. The bencom also receives income in the form of a government subsidy, via the Feed-in Tariff.

PEC Renewables launched its second community share offer this February, this time with a £950,000 target. It will fund more free solar photovoltaics, and bring the bencom’s community fund to more than £1.2m. It is forecasting a return of up to 6% for members, which rises to 10.5% including tax relief. The offer, which closes on 5 May, has already raised £510,000.

midland house council offices plymouth

Plymouth’s largest solar roof will be installed on Plymouth Life Centre, a diving centre and one of the busiest leisure centres in the country, and there will be solar panels on four more schools, bringing the total to 1.3MW. (Above: panels on Midland House, a Plymouth council office)

Plymouth has 11,500 households in fuel poverty – 10% of its population – and an energy-inefficient housing stock. The city council has produced a plan to reduce emissions from the council estate by 20% by 2015 and reduce citywide emissions by 30% by 2020.

One of its main aims is to help local people to understand their energy options, so it is promoting grant schemes for free cavity and loft insulation and subsidised external wall insulation, offering savings of around £260 per household per year. It has also provided energy tariff advice for over 600 households, offering average savings of £180 per year.

PEC Renewables’ community fund is being used to tackle the challenges of rising energy costs, fuel poverty and climate change. Projects include PEC’s fuel debt advice service, which has helped local residents clear £55,000 of energy bill arrears in the last 10 months, and its energy team, which trains volunteers to provide free home energy advice to at-risk households.

 

To learn about Plymouth’s plans for the future, read Ms Kidd’s article.