The Blog

What Do Communities Need To Take Control Of Their Local Economy?

"I'm a fisherman and my father was a fisherman, just like his Dad before him. I've been fishing since I was a toddler, going to sea with my Dad when the weather was good. It's a skilled job - hard work, dangerous, long hours. I never really thought about doing anything else, to be honest."

Graham Doswell is a third generation Eastbourne fisherman and his description characterises the kind of community that comes when tradition, work and social lives are entwined.

But the local authority's plans for Eastbourne's economy and the trajectory it was taking didn't appear to take account of the town's small-scale fishing industry, nor the 200 or so skilled jobs it creates. So, like countless people in local communities up and down the country, the town's fishermen decided to take things into their own hands - to 'take back control' in our modern political lexicon.

To create a sustainable future for Eastbourne's fishing industry, they formed an organisation owned by the fishermen themselves to purchase and develop the land by the harbour. It will allow them to develop a facility where the fishing fleet can produce their own ice, process their own fish and shellfish and supply directly to local customers. Working with Eastbourne residents and businesses, the group created a business plan for this new asset and on the back of that levered in investment to enable the development to go ahead.

This approach - of the people the in a local area coming together to develop and deliver a plan for the local economy that meets their needs - is what's known as 'community economic development.' Unlike conventional approaches to local economic development, which centre on economic growth and are led from the top down, community economic development is a process that is led by local residents and focuses on creating an economy that the people themselves want, typically one that generates locally owned wealth and decent jobs.

We at Co-operatives UK have just finished running the first government-backed programme of community economic development for 30 years. With our partners - Locality, the New Economics Foundation, CLES and Responsible Finance - we have supported 71 communities across England to develop and implement plans to shape their local economy.

We have found that there is a strong and growing desire among people to grapple with complex questions about the future of their local area and to have more influence over their local economy. No doubt some of this fuelled by new trends like interest in inclusive economic growth, calls for more 'control' in local areas and the reduction in inequality. Whatever the cause, it means we are seeing a revival of an alternative approach to economic development in the UK, one that puts people and place in the driving seat.

But what we have found, too, is that the ability of local communities to 'take control' of their local economy - even once they have developed a community economic development plan with local participation - is held back by a lack of legitimacy and power in the planning process.

In particular, if people to have more control over the local decisions affecting them, then two things need to be addressed before they can exert influence over the local economy.

First, because they can be overlooked, community economic development plans need to embedded within wider policy processes and be given the weight and legitimacy afforded to Neighbourhood Planning or Local Enterprise Partnership plans. They could even be given a statutory footing to ensure the community's views on the economy has legitimacy with stakeholders who held power or mandate. Imagine if the local authority had to consider the community's own plans for the economy alongside those of the authority itself and the local business partnership?

Second, local authorities and regional decision-makers need to broaden their measures of economic success from single financially-driven growth metrics. When local communities set out their priorities for the local economy, decent jobs, local wealth and ownership, and wellbeing figure far higher than growth alone. Again, imagine if the local authority were able to say, yes, growth matters but not at the expense of what local people want - an economy where wealth and the best jobs stay local?

Last week we launched a brilliant short new film about a co-op we've been advising through the Hive, our business support programme that we run with the Co-operative Bank. Bristol Wood Recycling are a wonderful, inspiring co-op and we're asking why a co-op that creates good jobs, benefits the environment and supports hundreds of volunteers doesn't exist in every city.

But ironically at the same time, we discovered the city council has issued it a termination notice on the land because it wants to sell it for re-development. It's an approach to economic development that puts conventional economic growth first but ignores the decent jobs, wellbeing and social capital that the co-op creates.

Back to Graham in Eastbourne, who make this point well.

"Fishermen have never occupied a powerful position when it comes to local decision-making. We need community economic development as previous development strategies have not delivered the changes needed for the local fishing fleet and the community it supports. A well-connected local economy can deliver positive outcomes on many levels, and fill the gaps where previous development strategies have failed to be inclusive, connected or locally supported."

If the voice of people on local economic issues, and the priorities they set, are given recognition then perhaps we will see the emergence of more local communities where it's the needs of the people that are shaping the economy.

The full analysis of community economic development is available here

Before You Go