Published: 24th Mar 2017

I spent this week, firstly in Aberystwyth in Wales and then in Belfast, listening to and taking part in conversations about local economics.

In Aberystwyth the Welsh Local Government Association held its third annual Behaviour Change Festival. The third day was focused on resilient communities and was opened by Keith Edwards, who spoke of Wales as a place that does things differently, a place that never fully signed up to the idea that ‘markets are king’.

He talked about the types of behavioural change that are needed – and possible – by those that run, use and deliver services in our communities, and the projects and ideas in Wales that are creating the kind of shift required.

Not least among these is the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which came into force in 2015 and which obliges public bodies to think more about the long term, work better with people and communities, and try to take a preventative, joined-up approach to social and economic challenges.

A future generations commissioner for Wales will support public bodies to achieve wellbeing goals.

This act is in its early days but has the potential to pioneer a new kind of approach to local economic development and local service delivery, one that combines ‘head and heart’ and that springs from values, not markets.

Throughout the event, other examples of a value-led, collaborative approach were shared, from the Swansea Community Energy and Enterprise Scheme, set up by Swansea Council but run by the local community, to the pioneer co-op housing models across wales.

During the Development Trust NI’s Local Economy: Community Economy conference in Belfast on Thursday, similar discussions took place around the kind of local economy we need and the types of behavioural and cultural shifts required to build it.

George Boyle, founder of Frumbally Exchange, a not-for-profit movement of creative professionals sharing co-working spaces, said that she was schooled to look at business as no more than a profit-making exchange but ‘grew up knowing there was something broken about the economy’.

Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network, offered seven steps to creating social change, ending with a rallying call for each one of us to get involved in creating the ‘desire lines of the future.’

‘As more and more of us walk these paths, we create more paths and the old ones have to change’, he said.

So does social and economic change happen when lots of people take the small steps needed to shift behaviour and culture, or when legislation forces people and institutions to change?

This question was debated during a workshop on the Social Value Framework being created by in Belfast as part of the Good City Economies project.

Neil McInroy, chief executive of CLES, said that in Manchester, local suppliers had become more focused on the social value of their employment and procurement strategies not through the introduction of social clauses but when local public leaders shared with them the issues that were important to the city, like youth unemployment, and asked what they – as companies – were doing about it.

Maeve Monaghan, chief executive of the Now Group, which runs catering businesses that train and employ people with learning difficulties, became part of the local government’s supply chain by tendering for the work alongside her competitors.

‘If I was still waiting for a social clause I wouldn’t be here’, she said. ‘We can debate all day what social value is but I know what works. Stop waiting for the right legislation and just do it.’

After 30 or more years of the current economic model, our local towns and cities reflect that market-driven approach and have, in many cases, drifted from social values and connections and lost their uniqueness.

We need a two-pronged approach to put empathy back at the heart of places: through agitating for the legislative and top-down change required, but also by activating and modelling that change on the ground.