This article was written by Karen Leach, company secretary and coordinator of Localise West Midlands, and Sarah Longlands, PhD student at the department of urban studies at Glasgow University and first published in New Start online magazine. REconomy & Localise West Midlands are part of a group of organisations currently figuring out ways to work together to meet our common aims. Here’s why they think local prosperity might be a useful new framing for our work…
There is a lot of talk in the UK at the moment about a return to growth, as confidence trickles slowly back into the housing market and unemployment figures fall.
But for Localise West Midlands, the question is more about when will we see a return to a local prosperity rather than simply an increase in aggregate UK growth? When will people in communities across the UK start to see money and investment flowing into their areas?
This isn’t a question of recession: even before the financial crash, prosperity was poorly shared. It’s about the huge holes that are left when economic success is made overly dependent on fly-by-night inward investment and the ‘absentee landlords’ of remotely-owned business – sucking money and control away from the place and its people, and leaving social exclusion and inequality.
Localise WM are amongst a growing number of organisations investigating different ways of generating local prosperity, building on the assets, people and resources that already exist within a place to both generate and circulate the benefits of growing prosperity to all.
At Localise West Midlands, we’ve been exploring this issue for a while now. In 2012/13, supported by Barrow Cadbury, we investigated the existing evidence about the social benefits of more localised economies. Surprisingly little research had been done into this before, so the review was significant and innovative work in bringing this evidence together.
As reported previously in New Start, our research showed that economies which have higher levels of small businesses and local ownership perform better in terms of employment growth, social and economic inclusion, income redistribution, health, civic engagement, wellbeing, local distinctiveness and cultural diversity. We identified ways to integrate a localised approach into the mainstream of economic development.
We’re now taking that research one step further and attempting to work with practitioners in the field to see if we can support them in greater promotion and implementation of this approach, and to learn from their experience.
We’re doing this through the development of an action learning network in the west Midlands conurbation and through practical work such as developing a model for small business collaboration on retrofit supply chains, and assisting with maximising the returns from a new hospital development. Our new Localising Prosperity website contains a simple introduction, useful case studies, guidance, and links to more information about the project.
One of the biggest challenges that we’ve come across to getting this agenda taken seriously is language. The simple concept of shaping the economy so that more people have more of a stake is not new. In our first project we called this ‘mainstreaming community economic development’ to demonstrate the need for community and economics to move closer together. We understood it, our funders understood it, and so did all those who think social issues matter in economics.
But to many people in positions of influence, the word ‘community’ operates the off-switch – it’s immediately niche, and people find it difficult to relate it to economic priorities of competitiveness, ‘high growth sectors’, attracting foreign direct investment.
But if we instead pitch our language to appeal to these people, then we’re likely to lose those from charity or community backgrounds, including perhaps funders, who may conclude this is a small business agenda and not a social one. We need language that builds a bridge over the conceptual rift between conventional prosperity and the wellbeing of places and people.
The Localising Prosperity website is our attempt at bridging this gap, communicating simply across all sectors and perspectives, and we welcome feedback on whether we’ve succeeded.
Work continues on localising prosperity over the next few months until October 2014. If you’d like to get involved, comment and/or receive regular updated about our work, please get in touch with me (Karen).