Published: 5th May 2016

charliefisherWhile big business and infrastructure projects receive investment, small-scale neighbourhood economies get little support. Allowing communities greater control over assets could bridge the gap between the macro and the micro, says Charlie Fisher

Take a bird’s eye view of the city of Belfast and you’ll see a patchwork of communities traditionally separated by an insular sense of place, by cultural and political tradition and by planning design.

Within these communities is an assortment of community enterprise, development and regeneration organisations responding to and meeting local needs. Some are small with a single service focus while others are large and well established, employing significant numbers of people and providing a wide number of services, acting as the beating heart of the local economy.

We see long established organisations such as Clifton House and Bryson Charitable Group who have their roots in the radical traditions of Presbyterianism and the philanthropy of Victorian industrialists and Christian Civic Union respectively. Others came into being in the more recent past, emerging during the Troubles in response to the needs of local communities impacted by conflict.

‘A new model is needed, in which communities progress innovative solutions

not simply to meet local need but to transform the lives of people’

What is common across Belfast and shared with most other cities in the UK and Ireland is a familiarity with the lived consequences of social exclusion: a shared experience of poverty and deprivation, educational under-achievement, economic and environmental decline.

Economic and social policy initiatives have come and gone. Neighbourhood renewal and tackling social exclusion initiatives delivered in recent decades, with laudable intentions, have impacted negligibly, rather than transformatively.

Inter-generational deprivation and long term unemployment are defining features of many communities across Belfast, economic inactivity is on the increase and is proportionally greater here than elsewhere in the UK.  The public sector is still the main employer and the private sector is small by comparison to other UK regions.

But, having said all this, the picture is not one of doom and gloom.

Community-led organisations are re-imagining the city

There is an entrepreneurial and economic resilience in Belfast and across Northern Ireland that is community-led, independent and innovative in its endeavours to meet local need and to stimulate economic action to regenerate local communities.

Social environmental development and area regeneration initiatives such as those led by Belfast Hills Partnership, Colin Neighbourhood Partnership, Colin Glen Trust and Connswater Community Greenway are illustrative of the extent to which community anchor organisations are at the forefront of re-imagining and rejuvenating Belfast.

Their work may be outside of the mainstream economy, which is characterised by economic policy focused on increasing the flow of foreign direct investment and enlarging a free market for international corporate business, but it is no less valuable for that. In the sphere of the environmental economy, it is local economic actors that are reconnecting communities to each other and to the core of the city itself.

Community anchor organisations and local development trusts are leading on training and employment programmes and supporting people into new employment opportunities. Organisations such as The NOW Group, Ashton Community Trust and Bryson FutureSkills are addressing the skills deficit that excludes those with experience of long-term unemployment and helping them to access existing and new labour market opportunities.

There is more that they can do but they need to be enabled by the state to expand to provide training support to meet market demand.

Communities remain constrained by the type and level of training opportunities they can offer. Opportunities for placing trainees in jobs are further hampered by an absence of supporting legislation. There is no social value act in Northern Ireland to direct the procurement and commissioning of services or to ensure the meaningful application of social clauses.

And, though there is an acknowledgement of the significance of the local economy and its contribution to the macroeconomic landscape, it has no formal legislative underpinning it. Northern Ireland does not have a localism act and community rights remain aspirational progressive policy objectives.

Ownership over assets and infrastructure can break dependency

As communities lead the way in environmental change on green spaces, they are equally to the fore in the acquisition and development of property, re-shaping the physical lived in urban environment.

The Northern Irish Assembly recognises the need to support local community development organisations to play a more active role in stimulating local economy and is actively encouraging the third sector to take opportunities to acquire surplus public sector estate. This approach builds on work underway across the UK supporting asset led community economic development. This includes community management of local government assets to deliver a variety of services as well as the opportunity to acquire ownership of surplus public assets.

Belfast’s community development trusts (communities of place, of interest and faith) are leading on the physical redevelopment of assets in local communities. Skainos, Belfast Central Mission, East Belfast Community Development Agency, Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts, Culturlann McAdam O Fiaich, and Forbairt Feirste exemplify this approach.

As good as local economic practice is, however, there is always more that can be achieved. The challenge is partly in building capacity and capability among existing community representative organisations. Undoubtedly in NI there is a culture of grant dependency, a co-dependent relationship between a variety of state bodies and local communities. The consequence is that we have created a development support infrastructure that is essentially managing poverty, rather than bringing forward new interventions to break the cycle of intergenerational deprivation. We are in part perpetuating it.

‘The barriers to economic autonomy at the most local

level, that of the neighbourhood, need to be removed’

A new model is needed, one in which communities have the opportunity to progress innovative solutions not simply to meet local need but to transform the physical environment and the lives of the people which make up our communities of place. Providing local, social and community economic actors with the opportunity to develop a physical asset base is one way  of achieving this, so long as the assets on offer are feasible economic rejuvenators rather than liabilities. Working largely in communities where private market intervention is sparse and large corporate players are notable by their absence suggests that the scale of the task for those charged with area-led regeneration should not be underestimated.

Developing physical assets as part of a programme of interventions to meet local need and transform local spaces requires financial investment, revenue and capital. Of equal or possibly greater importance is the opening up of existing and emerging markets to local economic practitioners. That should include leisure, health and social care and, in Northern Ireland, housing, including social housing.

Unlike England and Scotland the opportunities for local community development trusts to actively engage in housing development do not exist. If the Northern Ireland executive’s new programme for government 2016/20 is to continue to progress positively in supporting local communities to do more, the barriers to economic autonomy at the most local level, that of the neighbourhood, need to be removed.

Where the macro economy remains actively stimulated and heavily invested in by Invest NI so too must the local economy be nurtured and afforded greater support. Indeed the success of the former should be seen as being intrinsically linked to the success of the latter. The relationship between key statutory actors working across the whole economy must consider strategies to connect the micro and the macro and seek to grow the complementarity between them.