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Four ingredients for localism in 2028: solidarity, democracy, stories, finance

In her final blog for New Start, Clare Goff looks back over the last ten years of localism and suggests four ways in which the current momentum can be maintained 

Almost ten years ago, in August 2008, I joined the editorial team at New Start magazine. Although by then the cracks were showing in some of New Labour’s regeneration programmes, social and economic development was high on the agenda.

Neighbourhoods and early intervention were priorities, with the Sure Start programme rolling out across the UK, and New Deal for Communities notching up some successes in post-industrial places. Child poverty was declining and the eradication of rough sleeping was in sight.

It would have been hard to imagine then, that, ten years on, as I leave New Start, the social progress that had been achieved would be heading into reverse, that austerity would have ripped out much of the social fabric that kept poorer communities above water, that poverty would be highest among those in work, that food banks would be topping up salaries…

It’s been hard to watch, and even today – eight years into the government’s austerity programme – there seems little political will to restore benefits and protect communities and vulnerable people from the sharp edges of our market-led globalised economic model.

But since 2008 in spite of – or perhaps because of – the widespread neglect of communities by central government, places have fought back with their own solutions.

Regeneration as we knew it has, over the last ten years, become a dirty word, but we’ve witnessed the rise of gentler, slower, more nurturing forms of community development that have learned from some of the failures of the past and adapted.

Many of the solutions advocated by New Start since its launch in 1999 have shifted from ‘niche’ and ‘fluffy’ to ‘mainstream’ and ‘vital’. Community land trusts, local finance, the localisation of supply chains and the spread of community businesses are changing the power structures within places, while national programmes like Big Local now trust communities – rather than consultants – to find answers to local problems.

Movements are mobilising – in response to climate change and the failures of the economic model – and as national government drops out, the local is once again seen as the place where tangible and long term change can and should happen.

But while there is optimism and inspiration to be found, the challenges remain huge. A depleted civil society and cash strapped local government are struggling to shore up a divided and increasingly poorer society. Uncertainty and fear reign.

There is urgency to the work of rebuilding places, and a need for greater ambition than perhaps has been seen over the last ten years. And while it is important to set out visions for the future of community empowerment and civil society through the 2020s, there is a sense that the time for visioning is over. The groundwork has been laid. Solutions are being realised. What’s needed now are the will and the means to turn more of them into reality.

In my final blog for New Start, I propose four areas which need to shift to build on the momentum that is gathering, and ensure that, in another ten years from now, social progress is advancing and human flourishing universal.

  1. Solidarity: ‘Lots of us are betting our lives on this. We’re at such an apocalyptic stage of economic breakdown that we have to’. Those were the words of a delegate at our Good Local Economy event in Liverpool, talking about the citizen-led approaches to local economics rolling out across the city, set up by ordinary people compelled to do something to solve the growing economic problems on their doorstep. Such sacrifice and solidarity feels far from universal, however. Historians of the future may well wonder how we allowed the poorest to pay the price for the financial crisis of 2008, while Brexit has so far led to a widening of divides between classes, cultures and generations. Let’s use the fallout from the vote for Brexit as an opportunity for greater unity and understanding, a chance for those with wealth to begin a dialogue with those living in poverty in their own neighbourhoods and cities, and for those in power to stop consulting and start listening. Let’s champion services that are universal and empathic.
  2. Democracy: ‘The challenge is best met by creating a new, more capacious sense of “we”,’ said Robert Putnam. In ‘Bowling Alone’, he documented the decline of social capital in the US, from the plethora of sports teams, local clubs and associations to more solitary pastimes. Some argue that old forms of mutual connection have been replaced with newer ones, working men’s clubs superceded by farmer’s markets, for example. But there is little doubt that over the last 40 years, as corporate strength in the UK has grown, democratic power has not kept up. Some parts of Britain have the lowest levels of local democracy in Europe, and control – or lack of it – is now a recurring theme. We need a stronger ‘civic middle’, more social and civic infrastructure, and smaller gaps between people and power.
  3. Stories: New Start has played a role in discovering and disseminating the solutions to some of our most pressing economic and social problems, and championing a new narrative. Stories are powerful and cling on a long time after they should. The narratives that currently power our society are wearing thin but the new ones need help if they are to rise up.
  4. Finance: Social and community finance have moved on significantly in the last 10 years, primarily to plug the gaps in public sector funding. But there remains a lack of appropriate finance to fund large scale housing and social infrastructure projects, and social finance often mirrors the start-up and venture capitalist models of mainstream finance, making it inaccessible to many. Where are the philanthropic funds to help communities fight corporate power? In Germany for example there are anti-speculation foundations that help fund major projects, like the ExRotaprint scheme in Berlin. Let’s bring together those with the capital and those with the ideas and create investment vehicles that are appropriate and ambitious.

Over the last ten years I’ve travelled across the UK and beyond and been inspired by hundreds of people rooted in their communities doing vital work, often with little support or finance, protecting and nurturing them for the long term, through political cycles, economic booms and busts, and policy fads.

For, while governments come and go and markets rise and fall, people and places everywhere need the same things – decent housing, good jobs, safe communities, a sense of belonging.

One of my personal heroines is Julie Fawcett, who turned around the Stockwell Park estate in south London and who, in an interview with New Start 10 years ago, articulated the key to her success.

‘If you look back at the input into areas like this by professionals in the last 30 years, it’s resulted in guns on the street. Professionals will work with you for a few years and then bugger off. When you are a tenants’ organisation and your underpants are on the line, you can’t pretend you’re something you aren’t. Everyone knows you. They see you in the morning with no make-up on. It’s no bullshit. I find it hard to live in a bullshit world, which is what everything else is.’

Ten years later, we are edging towards a deeper recognition that economic and social change spring from and are driven by a sense of place, rootedness, patience, empathy and hope.

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