Participatory, inclusive, locally distinctive, inspiring and fun? Economic lessons from Futureshift Festival

At the Futureshift Festival on 26th April we held a session to discuss the wider economy and the system change implications of the Civic Foundry and Futureshift approach.

There’s a seriously infectious buzz surrounding this “accelerator” initiative of the Civic Foundry/Futureshift, with its emphasis on the ‘civic economy’, on doing things for oneself, on innovation, and on using technology for community ends. But what we wanted to explore was the perennial Localise WM question of how this initiative reaches beyond itself to help create real change in the mainstream – to benefit the many not just the dynamic few?

–          How can more of our economy can be participatory, inclusive, beneficial, locally distinctive, inspiring and fun?

–          When do we start to take back some of the market share from the ‘hoover’ organisations?

–          What are the organisations we need to influence and what are our ways in to them?

–          What are the policy and practice changes needed? Planning, taxes, banking?

LWM explores this agenda in our Mainstreaming CED activity (those who were at the session might find the initial research and current activity interesting)- but it’s always good to get new and different perspectives. So a small group of us had a short but lively session sandwiched between a tasty street food lunch and Chris Sunderland’s inspiring introduction to the Bristol Pound. What came out was:

–          Focusing on the priorities: food, finance, energy. Of these, finance is the most important.

–          Local currencies and local investment can really raise the profile of local money circulation, economic re-empowerment and “money with values.”

–          The inspiration of great initiatives that work locally is really important. Yes, the inspiration and energy of things like Hub Birmingham and Incredible Edible Todmorden are “only” targeted at the initiative-scale, but decision-makers seek you out if you demonstrate this inspiration. So we can focus some attention on making sure we’re ready for this.

–          Not all businesses should grow. Good things can be ruined by scaling up, but can better be replicated. Tax breaks can encourage this: because of the tax break given to microbreweries, there has been an immense revival in local ale – with benefits to local distinctiveness, product quality, healthy competition and profits diverted back into local economies. Think about the comparative local multiplier of a pint of Two Towers Bhacker Ackhams and a pint of Stella. Think of the local multiplier impact Ireland loses out on by its loyalty to Diageo’s Guinness as the national drink rather than a diversity of locally brewed stouts.

–          We need to remind ourselves of the value of “accidental community economic development” – my favourite example, featured in the initial Mainstreaming CED research, is that of Birmingham Wholesale Markets. Most of these businesses would laugh in your face if you described them paragons of social inclusion, but they are… and we need to recognise their value.

FSLWM–          Are too many bright young things put off by talk of campaigning and system change? Yes, they need space to (re) invent for themselves, but is the culture of rule-subverting “DIY” causing some young people to lose faith in the idea of using their collective voice to create change?

–          Some felt fair trade was a good example of something becoming mainstream, but others felt it had been watered down in the process and become less effective and beneficial.

–          We need to make good civic economy business models “open-sourceable”

–          The Evergreen model is a great way of scaling up and replicating co-operatives and their impacts positively.

–          There’s apparently some great work by Dutch academics on transition management, which is all about going from niche to mainstream. Dave Green has promised me the link to this – watch this space.

–          We agreed we need to highlight the problem of risk perceptions. Small businesses are perceived as inherently more risky, even though lending to a large number of small businesses actually spreads risk and locally-managed funding arrangements are based on genuine local and personal knowledge leading to reduced risk. This was a finding of our Mainstreaming CED research and you can read more about it on page 33 of the MCED literature review. Michael Shuman wrote eloquently about this in his book Small-Mart Revolution.

–          Develop models for co-operative consortia of smaller businesses and individuals – buying groups and franchises (another feature of Mainstreaming CED and also seen in Preston Council).

Great Offers–          A new Bristol project, Real Economy, is a food buying group linked to the Bristol Pound which supplies fresh food from local farms into deprived areas and food deserts.

–          “Avoiding PLCs” is perhaps a simple first action: as soon as a business becomes a PLC its need to maximise short term stock market value will always override and damage local value and longer term environmental/social impacts. Even the best Corporate Social Responsibility can never compensate for this.

We concluded that it was valuable for this sort of thinking to be done around the Civic Foundry/Futureshift agenda, and that an arms-length look at the initiative’s policy and wider economy implications was useful to maximise its impact.

I’m often these days musing on LWM’s specific role in creating change and Civic Foundry/Futureshift has made me think more about this. We’ve very clear and focused in our mission, but tactically, reflecting on the inspiration point above – can organisations like ours be listened to without doing the DIY ourselves? Can our role be to showcase what happens locally, and be the policy intermediary for it?

Thanks to all those who contributed to the session.

Karen Leach

Illustration of session above is courtesy of  Laura Sorvala @_auralab . Many thanks and apologies for incorrect credit earlier.

Birmingham’s wholesale markets – a partnership of inclusive local enterprise

It is vital to Birmingham’s independent food supply chains that Birmingham wholesale markets remain at their central site, neighbouring the retail markets, and being central for their diversity of customers and employees.

Despite a much-publicised Council recommendation to stop investigating solutions for the markets remaining on their current site, there is still a hope of this happening – an opportunity those of us who really care about widespread economic wellbeing in Birmingham need to seize with all hands.

There is an option to redevelop the current site keeping the wholesale markets, with new and exciting food-focused uses around them. This is the option Birmingham needs and that any self-respecting local enterprise body for the city would recommend.  On Monday, Birmingham’s Cabinet will decide whether to continue investigating this option. All it commits them to is keeping the door open for discussion.

Here at Localise West Midlands, as part of our Mainstreaming CED research, we studied the Birmingham Wholesale markets as good practice in community-scale economic activity. Below is what we learned about the impacts of the markets for inclusive economic success and enterprise.

To some, this will read as irrelevant to the big boys’ game of real economic development. They are wrong. The Mainstreaming CED findings are clear that economies built on local ownership and control and on smaller businesses are more successful in traditional economic terms as well as better in for all those woolly, irrelevant social concepts like quality of life. Far too much conventional economic analysis fails to recognise the collective benefit of local enterprise.

The wholesale markets and an inclusive economy

Birmingham Wholesale Markets are the largest integrated markets in the UK, comprising fruit and vegetable, fish, meat and poultry, dairy and flower sections. They are sited in central Birmingham, next to the city’s retail markets and have an aggregate turnover of £275 million, with 73 trading operations (all but two of which are locally owned) and employing 1,100 people. It is estimated by BWFPA that 15,000 jobs in the region are dependent on the markets.

ourbirmingham.orgSupply and Demand Chains

The markets also occupy a very significant place in Birmingham’s food supply chains: 95% of independent food businesses in the city – close to 5,000 independent food businesses – do some business there: an extraordinary market share.  The customer base also goes far beyond Birmingham into surrounding counties and even into mid-Wales.  The wholesale markets serve some ‘top end’ establishments such as Purnell’s as well as the affordable end, and also limited supermarket trade.

Whilst (as you’d expect) BWFPA has no official local sourcing policy, some members serve Bretts, the company that serves the city schools’ fruit and vegetable contract, for which the council has local sourcing and CO2 policies.  Figures are not available from BWFPA for the markets’ local sourcing but much of the horticultural produce is sourced from the region, including the Vale of Evesham and Staffordshire; but also from Europe and further afield.  Meat is mostly locally sourced, although also from Wales and Scotland too depending on seasonal availability and market value.  Again this points to a significant market role for produce that does not go through the multiples’ supply chains.

Social and Economic Inclusion

In addition to strengthening Birmingham’s local food supply chains, the wholesale markets also contribute to social and economic inclusion. This is partly in the sense that through the neighbouring retail markets they provide cheap high quality foods for the local community. Overheads and thus prices are low at the Bull Ring, making it a major contributor to healthy food access and social inclusion in the city centre. The markets also contribute in terms of  economic and social/ethnic diversity is very wide in the markets’ customer base, including always the latest wave of immigrants. Currently for example the customer base at George Perry is 80% Asian. Immigrants using the markets include Iraqis and Afghanis who will use the markets for small-scale street trading such as buying a box of apples and selling them on the street. A vast number of the city’s culturally specialist food shops source their produce at the wholesale markets, some of these communities then mix and socialise at the markets alongside the  long hours they work. So a social cohesion role emerges as well as a practical food distribution role that it is hard to imagine functioning if the Wholesale Markets weren’t there.

Employment, skills and recruitment

The Wholesale Markets also contribute heavily to employment, providing a major local source of recruitment especially from areas of high unemployment, resulting in a constant churn of new people.  They offer an effective opportunity for people who haven’t done well at school or those from “less socially acceptable” backgrounds: in comparison with many training programmes they provide ‘real’ manual work with a degree of security, flexibility and mutual respect; 99% of these positions are salaried and there tends to be mutual flexibility over hours depending on company and employee needs.  “It’s a rough and ready environment with politically incorrect banter but people just get on with it and each other, and there’s a sense of honour amongst entrepreneurs.”

Business: innovation, resilience, community

The Markets also offer a key source of innovation and resilience within the community. History has shown that the market is always capable of evolving and adapting, for example, innovation in IT to facilitate trade with international partners. The BWFPA committee is highly representative of small businesses, feeding their opinions into the council. Unsurprisingly, the wider community has been very supportive of the markets remaining where they are during BWFPA’s campaign, with strong support for the Bull Ring Markets and shops in addition to the signing of a petition of well over 20,000 signatures in support of the markets remaining on their current site. This is the largest petition ever delivered to Birmingham’s electoral officers.

The support of Birmingham City Council is essential if the markets are to continue supporting the local community. The council needs to recognise the fact that composite markets work well because they function as a ‘one stop shop’ – businesses will use them for all their produce needs and so are likely to buy a higher proportion from these local supply chains.  Community leaders also value the integrated markets, saying a move would split up whole communities. A central site is also crucial to this.

Moving the markets out of the city would change how the markets’ finances work, as rents and service charges would rise and require capital outlay. Some of their current efficiency and little need for borrowing would be lost.

Attempt to relocate or move the markets would be disastrous to the local community especially in terms of social and economic inclusion and local food supply chains. The Council might propose mitigation measures such as providing collective goods transport from the out-of-centre site for the retail markets and other customers, but realistically, how long would revenue funding for this last and how practical would it be? The proposal by BWFPA for a smaller and more streamlined wholesale function within a mixed use development and still bordering the vital retail markets would maintain, and enhance, the ability of the wholesale markets to benefit the local community and strengthen its local economy. This would support medium and long term economic success and yet still bring short-term financial benefits for a cash-strapped local authority.

The proposal for keeping the Wholesale Markets where they belong, in the city centre at the heart of a food-related new development, really is a win-win situation and if Birmingham City Council failed to take advantage of this, the economic and social consequences would be severe.

Jamie Stone and Karen Leach