Fiona Ward of Transition Network’s REconomy Project attended the South West Autumn Seminar organised by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE). Her feedback opens:
“The question in this post’s title was one of the challenging questions asked at the Solace South West Autumn Seminar”, held at Dartington Hall in Devon, early in November”.
The event’s organiser, Richard Sheard, CEO of South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council, wanted to raise some important questions about the difficulties faced in local government in these increasingly uncertain times:
- Besides questioning growth, should wellbeing rather than GDP be our measure of success?
- And what’s the role of communities in leading their own future and delivering local solutions?
He wanted to provide some challenges to the status quo and look at some of the potential solutions that are emerging.
“About three quarters of the group didn’t believe that we would be getting back to growth as we have known it in the past, and some of the forecasts included:
“If we ever get out of this recession, nothing will be as it was in the past”
“Each generation has had things better than the last one, but not anymore”
“Future generations will look back and say this was the start of the end of the West”
“Interesting to compare these to the generally accepted economic forecasts from the government and traditional economists that it’s only a matter of time – though it may be long and bumpy – but ultimately we will be back on track for growth. But perhaps they know something we don’t?”
Some participants believed that there’s an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change and reduce inequity to avoid social unrest. Others reflected the wider view that people are being over-pessimistic about economic growth; that the planet can accommodate lifestyle choices; that climate change is not a serious issue and we needn’t worry about living within our ecological means.
The good news is that macro-economic growth may not be required to deliver wellbeing
“. . . nef and other credible economists and organisations are calling for a new type of economics, one based on prosperity through wellbeing. For example, it’s been shown that earning over about £15,000 per year does not add significantly to an individual’s wellbeing. And while we have certainly seen a rise in living standards, we know that ‘trickle-down’ is more like ‘hoover-up’ in reality”.
But without growth, and tax revenues from good incomes, how will public services be delivered?
“This is where we are already seeing local community organisations across the country stepping up with viable solutions, many of these linked to the Transition movement or to proactive community organisations operating at a very local place level. These projects are building social capital, exploring ways to bring more people into a voluntary caring role, re-skilling people in practical ways to transform their livelihoods, reducing carbon footprints of households, launching renewable energy companies and other local businesses in which communities can invest, and developing community-led economic strategies that support local job growth and real opportunity, in the energy efficiency sector for example . . . ”
- Democratic participation at the local level can increase; 10 of 17 town councillors in Frome are a united independent party who committed to make significant impacts within their 4 year term. Voter turnout increased by 75%.
- “Collaborative consumption”, where people share goods and services between themselves, often supported by online tools such as Whipcar which lets you rent your neighbour’s car, or Zopa which enables people to people lending, with no banks involved is gaining increasing attention.
- There are new opportunities for councils to invest their pension funds, for example, in credible low risk community owned local energy companies.
“So – is any of this remotely viable?
“Was the group inspired by the ideas and stories of practical projects already underway?
“Can and should local government take on these ideas, and potentially, radically transform the way they work?
The group’s final reflections as a group were surprisingly upbeat and positive, she found. They had started to explore potential solutions and generally, were lifted by a sense of optimism that local solutions can be found balanced by a concern whether these solutions can scale up to meet the size of the problem.
Some were enormously positive this was the case, while others had some reservations but were willing to keep an open mind. It was realised that for a council to stay as it is, is possibly the highest risk strategy of all and that councils will need to do more selective, better tailored work at neighbourhood and individual level to meet the priority needs and make best use of scarce resources, exploring different ways of working and partnering.
Some CEOs were not sure whether their members would engage with this agenda and its potential for the transfer of more power to communities. Fiona adds:
“While relevant everywhere, and at all levels, I see more clearly that issues of power are particularly influential within local government, both political and personal. These inner (invisible) issues need to be addressed as much as the visible changes we need to see in our systems and infrastructure”.
Richard Sheard and some of the other CEOs have offered to organise a 1 day session open to both officers and members in early 2013, where this work to re-imagine local government can continue.
To read Fiona’s article, go to http://transitionculture.org/2012/11/15/what-happens-when-local-authorities-ask-what-if-the-economic-situation-doesnt-get-better/