Published: 4th Apr 2016

Southern2015Northern cities and towns are places that have become post-industrial but without purpose. We need to enable people to take back control of work, governance, assets and enterprise, says Alan Southern

What do you do with a local economy in a northern English town or city? What should politicians argue for? What do local government or local enterprise partnership officers want to see happen?

Typically, these are economies were wealth creation is restricted by the local industrial base, disposable income is modest, indices of deprivation intractable and ‘bullshit’ jobs – as David Graeber calls them – plentiful. Most small businesses will trade locally. House prices in the main will have failed to bounce back from their 2008 peak. Some home ownership is still within reach for some young people, although there are not the same levels of equity that can be used to stimulate enough economic demand. Sorry for such rhetoric but the experience of places in north-west England suggests we have a limited repertoire when it comes to social and economic development.

‘We can stimulate and agitate from the neighbourhood

level and we can achieve scale across a city region’

Inward investment is important. So too is developing indigenous innovation and technology. In the larger cities of Liverpool or Manchester we can point to some areas of success, some pocket of research and development, some consumption-driven dynamism near a city centre perhaps, and it is true that local governance agencies have themselves been a subject of transformation.

Nonetheless, in general most communities in this part of the country have never really recovered from the experience of de-industrialisation. We know here that most people no longer have access to sites of mass employment, and what opportunities there are are often sparse and polemic. There are too few knowledge intensive businesses and service based jobs that bring with them precariousness. These are places that have become post-industrial but without purpose. This means we seriously need to think about building from a different direction.

Personally, I am an advocate of the diverse economies work of Gibson-Graham, two women who have written much in developmental economics. We need something from which to capture both local social and economic development in a period of intense inequality and I believe the time has come to apply some of Gibson-Graham’s thinking to places like Liverpool.

With their colleagues they have argued for a principle of greater collectivism and less individualisation. They advocate wealth creation for social and environmental goals, sustainable consumption and mutual support for individual wellbeing. They suggest that to ensure sufficient investment into future generations we need to ‘take back the economy’.

My interpretation of this is that we can stimulate and agitate from the neighbourhood level and we can achieve scale across a city region. Let us put an end to describing our communities in some natural free market sense, and as deficient if they are not able to access market opportunities. We should seek to re-appropriate the language of the local economy for this purpose, and I would argue that communities would benefit if they were encouraged to take back work, governance, assets and enterprise.

Taking back work

How do we take back? First, let’s take back work. To put an end to people working more but surviving poorly we need to place a social value on the processes of employment, to agitate for ethical action in securing work. Secure the right levels of training, push for employment security, provide a fair wage with the living wage as the baseline, have a jobs and skills policy that would operate throughout the local supply chain and procurement process – these are policies that could be pursued and politicians could say to potential investors, ‘please come here and invest and work to these principles’.

Taking back governance

Let’s take back governance. Local democracy should be strengthened in its many forms not just through city region devolution, but through new neighbourhood group initiatives. Encourage local democratic agencies to make a space for community voice, to act on behalf of the community and not in the interests of the profession. Public, quasi-public and private services need to be accountable and efficient from the perspective of local community interests; social innovation is needed to open up long-term partnerships in ways to encourage volunteering opportunities, reduce the isolation within and between communities, raise enterprise awareness and generally build up the local capacity that is often associated with promoting social capital. There is legislation that should enable this now, although let’s not be naïve – austerity has been a negative experience.

Taking back assets

Tangible assets exist in all neighbourhoods and can be shaped for the benefit of the community. Although tied to governance and to legal frameworks of land and property ownership, we need to secure assets for community use, to see this as terra communis (communal land or the commons) and agitate for access, use, benefit, care and responsible benefit.

One example is space for sustainability, for community enterprises that are focused on solving problems such as recycling and environmental protection. Another is acquisition of land for instance by community land trusts, which, while focused on homes it offers a model for pursuing collective and individual family benefits. By taking back assets we can provide a community with something real to work with and the public sector, charities and philanthropists can help make this happen.

Taking back enterprise

Finally, let’s take back enterprise. It is no coincidence that the focus on small business and entrepreneurship has corresponded with the demise of mass industrial employment. Yet this has been led within a particular narrative, one that encourages individualisation and exploitation, framed around rentier and arbitrage type activities at the expense of working collectively to lock in surplus and social value for communities and to give equal weight to fair distribution as that given to wealth creation.

In many communities we see entrepreneurial behaviours that include production, distribution and consumption and can offer a means for savings and credit at a grassroots level. Other examples might be local economic externalities through the commitment of large private and public sector organisations to purchase more from local enterprises, the self-employed and social enterprises. Again, legislation exists to support this. However, to take back enterprise we need to change the narrative, towards entrepreneurial behaviour that advocates trade and transaction with a social purpose.

Many things I’ve pointed to we can see happening in neighbourhoods across the country. There is legislation to enable much of it. The question is how do we make it central to local economic strategy, as important as inward investment or new tech business? This is the challenge. Make is mainstream, not alternative.