It’s been a fascinating week in the evolving absurdity of Brexit. The High Court decided that the terms of the Brexit negotiations needed to be agreed by Parliament, rather than being decided behind the closed doors of Cabinet meetings. The government will appeal to the Supreme Court and, with delicious irony, still have the opportunity to appeal to the European Court as a last port of call.
It is increasingly clear that ‘taking back control’ looks likely to mean nothing of the sort. In reality it means selling our power generation and infrastructure projects to the Chinese, seeking trade deals that favour vast corporations, giving sweeteners to car companies to set up here, removing the people’s power of opposition to things like fracking, and the ongoing concentration of wealth into the hands of the few.
It also means our ghastly Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom telling the Conservative Party conference how great it is that the UK exports nan bread to India (see below), while the Department for International Trade tweets “France needs high quality, innovative British jams & marmalades” (er, no it doesn’t) while using the hashtag #EXportingisGREAT. Not just great you understand, but GREAT. I responded with the hashtag #Exporting is LIKESOTWENTIETHCENTURY. They didn’t respond.
I am often asked what a better version of Brexit might look like, the ‘Progrexit’ I wrote about a few months ago. A recently-published report, ostensibly looking at building stronger local urban economies, contains many useful insights into what a good Brexit, in particular what an economic development strategy founded on a real, un-xenophobic version of ‘taking back control’, could look like. A version that actually takes back control from those people we truly need to take it away from, rather than from you and I and everyone around us.
‘Creating Good City Economies in the UK’ is the work of Clare Goff and Rachel Laurence, and is published by Friends Provident Foundation, CLES, New Economics Foundation and New Start Magazine. It looks at the work underway in UK 10 cities to build more resilient local economies, drawing out key learnings, and replicable elements. It dissects the approach favoured by governments and development agencies of “inward investment regeneration programmes, enterprise zones, the prioritisation of economic growth and reliance on trickle-down”, and argues that although it has had some successes, it generally only works for a small percentage of a population. It’s outdated, behind the times. It doesn’t work. And it’s hugely dull.
This is time when, as Goff and Laurence note, “the majority of UK businesses employ fewer than 10 people, and self-employment and micro-businesses are in the ascendancy”. It is not a future of huge, centralised energy projects owned by French and Chinese conglomerates that we need, but a future of local ownership of key assets. Making it happen requires a fresh approach, one that “assesses the skills and support needs of its local population and creates strategies to meet those needs”. So far, so Transition.
Here’s how the report identifies the distinctions between this new approach and the current conventional one:
But the focus of this report isn’t so much on what communities themselves can do, rather on enabling, on what needs to be put in place to get this stuff to scale, what it looks like when top down and bottom up are working together. It was published a week after Oil Change International (OCI) published their report that the 1.5 degree target agreed at COP21 was now virtually unattainable, and a 2 degree target would mean a “managed decline” (great expression) of fossil fuel production and no new exploration or production.
As David Roberts put it in a piece reflecting on the OCI report, in words I would happily print out and pop through the letterbox of every leading Brexiteer:
“The actions necessary to hold to 2 degrees, much less 1.5 degrees, are simply outside the bounds of conventional politics in most countries. Anyone who proposed them would sound crazy, like they were proposing, I don’t know, a war or something. So we say 2 degrees is unacceptable. But we don’t act like it is”.
We urgently, no, desperately, need new thinking, thinking that clearly is barely even considered by this government and the Brexiteers. We appear to have ‘taken back control’ in order to commit climate suicide in quiet isolation.
Goff and Laurence propose 10 steps which would do just as well as the founding principles for a post-Brexit economic strategy:
- System changing: argues that we need to shift the thinking and funding to enable resilience, reimagining the fundamental assumptions underneath our decision-making.
- A revolution in grassroots enterprise: suggests we need our strategies for regional development to put the encouraging, fostering and supporting of social enterprise. We must however distinguish between healthy, resilient and just enterprises, and the current push towards self-employment that drives people into a precarious, insecure, low paid place, the ‘Precariat’.
- Anchor institutions embedded in and working for the local economy: focuses on the role of key institutions, like hospitals, to drive the shift towards the local. It’s a way of making public money work harder for local economies, make more happen, creating “social and local supply chains that keep money circulating within local economies”. Rather than slashing public spending on services like the NHS, they should be seen as key catalysts for local economic regeneration and a reimagining of public health.
- Empathic, enabling local leadership: suggests that “the paternalistic role of councils is shifting to a more partnership-based approach in which the stage and local communities and local businesses work together with each other to tackle local problems”
- True corporate social responsibility and support for small and social businesses: the economic approach of incentivising big business to set up in an area while “expecting little in return beyond the creation of jobs which can be short-term and unsuited to the skills of the local labour force” needs addressing. We need to shift to an approach where “business understands its social and civic role and incorporates that into its operations”. Some councils, for example, now have ‘business charters’, which set down what is expected of them if they set up in a particular place.
- Assets that are owned by and work for the community: “Across the UK, asset-based social and community enterprises are proving models of place-based jobs and prosperity, and aligning social and economic aims and needs”.
- Co-produced local economic development: “When the three sectors work together (public, private and social) on the decisions that affect local communities, a more place-based economic strategy emerges, one that is focused on the specific needs of communities, eradicating poverty and ensuring that money stays and flows within a local area”
- True devolution: rather than just talk about giving more powers to local communities, these need to be real powers, powers to actually take control of decisions over land, housing, and develop bottom-up policies
- Finance that serves people, place and a productive economy: “finance needs to become more democratic and resilient again, able to serve the needs of people and place and to be the cornerstone of a productive economy”
- A broad set of measurements of a successful economy; social and economic policies aligned: at the moment, the key indicator of success is whether GDP increases, but as this report argues “a more accurate analysis of our economies would take into consideration people’s wellbeing, environmental impacts, the quality of jobs, andhow wealth flows around a place. It would assess how far an economy supports the needs of people and communities, rather than creating growth for growth’s sake”.
The great thing is that it is already happening, and happening in spite of, even in reaction to, the push from central government and the Brexiteers. It doesn’t need their permission. However, if Brexit succeeds, and the UK signs up to whatever ghastly version of TTIP, or TISA, or CETA it manages to fashion free of the restraining influence of France and Germany, it will become much harder.
We must therefore look at the work set out in this report, the work Transition initiatives and many others are doing to build the kind of local resilience set out here, alongside the work of resisting these appalling trade deals. Likewise, we need to see the Divest movement being more explicit about the need to build finance pipelines, as Chuck Collins sets out in his book ‘Born on Third Base’, to bring meaningful investment into relocalisation/resilience-building initiatives.
This is not a report that goes as deep as it might. It doesn’t for example, question economic growth at all. Indeed the only mention of growth comes in a quote from Bristol’s new Mayor Marvis Rees who says:
“Such high levels of poverty and inequality not only harm the people and places affected by them, but also hold cities back and hamper their growth, prosperity and resilience.”
I would have liked to see the report go a bit deeper into what it means by “growth”. There is a real opportunity to challenge the Brexiteers’ obsession with growth-by-any-means (means that make meeting our climate change targets impossible, i.e. Heathrow) and show a different approach, one that concentrates more wealth locally, and grows wellbeing, health, freedom from debt, connection, imagination. I’d have liked to have seen them pick apart that statement “growth, prosperity and resilience”. For me, only two of those words can fit together. Add a third and we’re into oxymorons and wishful thinking.
The Local Enterprise Partnership in my part of the UK recently produced the map below as part of their ‘vision’ for the South West. This is for the part of the UK with a vibrant local food scene, community energy projects, the birthplace of the Transition movement, many amazing initiatives. Yet in their vision, all the renewable energy is in the sea and economic growth is only made possible by building 179,000 mostly unaffordable houses. Oh, and a financially ruinous, utterly unnecessary, nuclear power station.
Around the same time this imagination-bereft nonsense was being prepared for publication, Transition Network’s REconomy Project (partly funded by Friends Provident Foundation who also funded this report) and Transition Penwith held a REconomy event in Penzance which drew together people from a range of local organisations, citizens and others to imagine a more resilient, just, sustainable future. Here’s what they came up with:
While the Brexiteers are pulling us in one direction, a direction shaped by suspicion, business-as-usual, the protection of vested interests, and no imagination whatsoever, another direction is emerging, initially with communities, and now, as this report shows, with enlightened local governments. Put your shoulder behind it.
You can download ‘Creating Good City Economies in the UK’ here.