A Co-operative Recovery

Co-operative leadership and Labour in power: community wealth building approaches for local government

Joe Cullinane

Leader of North Ayrshire Council

Community Welath Building

Joe Cullinane is the leader of North Ayrshire Council, who are undertaking a bold community wealth building strategy, developing transformative policies on housing, the environment, co-operative growth and workers’ rights which point the way to a different, more collaborative, kind of local government.

The Covid pandemic exposed the fragility of our economic model. A system based on extraction rather than production has failed individuals, communities and the planet. It has left us exposed to the threat of a continuous cycle of social, economic, environmental and public health crisis’. If we don’t heed this latest warning that the economy needs to fundamentally change; if we come out of the pandemic and try and reboot the extractive economic system as we did after the financial crash in 2008; then when will we ever make the break with neoliberalism and create an economy that works in the interests of the many.

The growing Community Wealth Building movement across the UK is borne out of the need for the sort of economic transformation that the aftermath of the pandemic demands. We know that central government will not deliver that transformation; we will get the rhetoric of a “Northern Powerhouse”, “Levelling Up”, “Build Back Better”, a “Green Industrial Revolution” but none of it will address the pre-existing consequences of decades of neoliberal economics – low pay, insecure work and rising poverty. It won’t expand democratic ownership of the economy nor will it tackle the obscene accumulation of wealth by the richest people in this country and across the world, an accumulation which has accelerated throughout the pandemic despite millions of our fellow citizens being placed on furlough, forced to live on reduced incomes and worrying whether they will have a job to go back to when the pandemic is over.

Community Wealth Building is local Leaders, such as its pioneer Matthew Brown in Preston, taking back control and saying we can do better than this. We may have faced a decade of cuts to Local Government through austerity and we may not have the powers that Local Government enjoys in other parts of the world because our political system is one of the most centralised in the world, but we don’t have to accept this is how the economy is. The economy is a social construct and we can shape it in any way we want, starting with local economies and laying the seeds for the wider reconstruction of the economy by demonstrating the success of local initiatives to win broader political support for the ideas across the country.

As Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill define it in their book ‘The Case for Community Wealth Building’, Community Wealth Building is about pursuing local economic development strategies that support collective ownership of the economy using a plethora of tools that are already available at a regional and municipal level such as procurement spend, the land and buildings the public sector own and our power as employers to offer economic opportunities to local residents that pay well, offer good terms and conditions and provide career progression pathways.

People across the Labour and Co-operative movement are increasingly aware of the success of the Preston Model, particularly after it helped the Labour Party in Preston to buck the national trend at May’s election and retain all 10 seats it was defending. Their progressive procurement policies have brought millions of pounds worth of work back into the local and regional economy, helping them to increase employment whilst their work on the real Living Wage has helped them ensure that more of the jobs that the repatriated procurement spend supports are well paid. And people will know about their ambitions to create new worker co-operatives and establish a mutually owned bank alongside comrades in the North West such as the Leader of Wirral Council, Jan Williamson. In North Ayrshire we are pursuing all of that in our ambitious, action-orientated Community Wealth Building strategy but it is the physical transformation of our communities that is starting to tell the early success story of Community Wealth Building in North Ayrshire.

One of the consequences of centrally imposed austerity on Local Government has been everything being viewed through the lens of its monetary value, none more so than the land and buildings that Councils own. Not viewed through the economic and social value that those assets hold for communities, they have been viewed as assets that can be sold off, under the guise of ‘property rationalisation strategies’, to fill budget gaps. But once a public asset is sold into private ownership, its public value is lost forever. That’s why we have baked in a new approach to our land and buildings into our Community Wealth Building strategy and it provides an alternative for Council’s to regenerate their communities from the bottom up.

The default position is no longer to sell off an asset but to explore alternative uses, either by ourselves or through transferring ownership to the community, that could put the asset into productive use, realising its economic and social value for the common good of our communities.

Supported by an innovative Community Investment Fund, which we created in 2017 with £3million of funding and then devolved responsibility for backing the projects the fund finances down to our ‘Locality Partnerships’ which are made up of local elected members and local community representatives, we are seeing loads of community groups take ownership of land and buildings to deliver community-led regeneration projects. On the Isle of Cumbrae, we have a group taking ownership of the local Town Hall and with £3million of funding secured, including seed funding from our Community Investment Fund, plans to restore it into a functioning asset for the islands residents and visitors. In Saltcoats, a local karate club have taken ownership of a disused part of the town’s Train Station and turned it into a training facility. In my own town, Kilwinning, a local group has installed an outdoor gym and new play equipment in the local public park and local residents are flocking to the place in huge numbers to take advantage of the new facilities. Coming out of the pandemic, part of our Recovery Plan is a further £3million for the Community Investment Fund and a new £1million fund to support community groups with asset transfers of council owned facilities currently not in use.

We are using the land we own differently ourselves too, with a particular focus on using it as part of our plans to become a net-zero region by 2030. We have approved a tree planting programme that will see 108,000 trees planted over the next few years, with an associated training programme to provide opportunities for young people. We have also approved two council owned solar farms, which are going to be sited on former landfill sites, which will not only generate around two-thirds of the Council’s energy needs but will provide a financial return of over £20million – money that will be reinvested in North Ayrshire not be extracted by the shareholders of multinational energy co-operations.

In fact, Community Wealth Building has reframed the way we value land and buildings that much that we are not only halting the selloff of many council owned assets, but we are actively bringing privately owned vacant and derelict sites into Council ownership and using our massive council house investment programme, that will build 1575 new council houses, to convert some of these sites into new council housing for our residents.

In many ways, as Matthew Brown says, Community Wealth Building is a set of radical ideas, but it is also just common sense. It recognises the fundamental problems with the prevailing economic system and implements practical actions that address those problems. It is not a one-size fits all approach, it is flexible to the needs of an area but also the powers and resources that a Council may have at their disposal. It’s a Labour and Co-operative agenda and with us out of power at Westminster, and at Holyrood, it’s up to Labour and Co-operative Councillors across the country to take up these ideas, introduce them in your own area and help build the new economy from the ground up.

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