share this article

Listen to this episode and subscribe to the FA podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or Overcast.

Local government budgets were among the first to be hit by austerity measures imposed by the UK government after the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. With seemingly little room for manoeuvre, councils were forced to close libraries and community centres, sell off their fixed assets, and outsource social care, catering, park maintenance and other services to private providers whose business model has tended to depend on the erosion of workers’ pay and conditions and tax avoidance.

Out of this inauspicious context, an exciting experiment emerged in the small Northern English city of Preston. Shortly before its central government grant was cut to zero, the city’s council decided to embark upon a radical project aimed at transferring economic, social and political power back to the local community, following the principles of the growing community wealth building movement. For Breezeblock #19, FA’s Charlie Clemoes talked to Rhian E. Jones about Preston, community wealth building, and its capacity to radically transform our approach to development.

Below is a transcript of the conversation.

Rhian E. Jones (REJ): Community wealth building is at the same time very simple and very complex. The general idea behind it is about generating wealth at a local level and in a democratic way. So it covers things like workers cooperatives, buying/using local suppliers and local companies or firms, which in turn will use local labour and thereby reducing unemployment and working in a way that’s got an eye to ethical and environmental considerations. So using renewable energies, sustainable material and this kind of thing. As a basic idea it’s got a very long history and you can trace it back even to things like the Paris Commune which was 150 years ago but focused very much on democratic and very local decision making, But you could look at things like Chiapas in Mexico or Rojava and the way that Democratic Confederalism, has been applied there, or you could look at very, very, micro examples: things that the Lucas Plan in 1976 which was a group of British workers at Lucas Aerospace, responding to their impending redundancy, and the closure of this aerospace plant by saying “well hang on, can’t we take it over ourselves and start building socially useful renewable products”, and similar things like Tower Colliery, which was a deep mine in Wales which was taken into workers control in the early 90s; and I think 2018 There was a similar thing attempted in Belfast, Harland and Wolff shipyard. So these theories and these ideas about worker ownership and democratic control of production, have obviously got a massively long history. The name community wealth building has been with us relatively recently and is from a US organisation called the Democracy Collaborative, which Matthew Brown is a member of, they’re based in the US, and they’re sort of the driving force behind the Cleveland Model which is something that inspired Preston

Charlie Clemoes (CC): Great, I think it resonates with the idea, which is a title of a section in the book of “taking back control”, but really taking back control of the economic processes that prevail in a particular community or locality and doing it in various different ways. As I was reading the book I was thinking about the very many ways that this kind of thing can be useful to development, maybe more ethical development and architectural practice but it would be nice to hear more about some direct or most obvious ways that community wealth building applies to architecture. 

REJ: Sure, something that’s community wealth building tries to do with all aspects of civic life and work is to make complex processes comprehensible and accessible to everyone who might have an idea for getting involved so that the book focuses a lot on if you understand local government, then it helps first to understand what’s a local council is how you get elected, how a council gets his money and spends it. All of that really is quite simple, it can be boiled down very easily, but there’s a lot of steps, it’s presented in quite an obscure way sometimes and as though it’s this sort of arcane knowledge that only an elite have and by dint of having that elite knowledge then they are suitable to govern like I know it’s a very self-perpetuating thing but I think it happens in a lot of elements of capitalism as well like a lot of elements of a business: like ordinary people are too thick to understand the complexities of running a business, it’s best that they keep out of it. So the book tries to break down all of that. I think that applies to the planning process as well and, obviously, local governments are involved in that process. Yeah, developers, private developers are involved in that process as well. 

CC: Matthew Brown, talks about community wealth building as a kind of extreme common sense, and I think there’s a disconnect there, insofar as it may well be extremely common sensical. But it obviously isn’t. Common sense is usually something that registers more broadly and is the norm, right, and that isn’t the case with community wealth building. So I’m wondering about this disconnect, how do you overcome it or actually make it common sense? And maybe, what are some of the effective ways of spreading this knowledge, with the exception, or maybe including your book.

REJ: I think you’re right that there is a disconnect, perhaps the results of community wealth building are regarded as common sense. As in, everyone should have control over their environment, decisions should be taken democratically etc. Those things are common sense, even though they don’t really happen at the moment. So I think the Preston model as a way of achieving these results is perhaps a bit counterintuitive because it does involve making cultural changes as well as systemic changes to the way that councils operate and the way that money is spent, there’s almost like a paradox between how community wealth building is talked about as transformative and radical when a lot of it is just common sense. A lot of the counsellors that we spoke to about this, didn’t immediately see the relevance of it because they’d say things like well we already buy local. And obviously, community wealth building is a lot deeper than that, by contrast, it’s about ensuring that local suppliers operate ethically, that there are stipulations about targeting employment and that kind of thing. But yeah, buying local is common sense and it’s been around for ages. However, on the other hand, there are other critical tendencies that talk about community wealth building as pointless and just tinkering around the edges, when it can actually have really transformative effects. Again, buying local is an example of that. So one of the things about progressive procurement as it’s been called in Preston is that it combines buying local with things like workers empowerment, so unions are part of the whole process, and it brings in ethical and environmental considerations which means that it becomes a choice available to all not just people who can afford to adopt a particular lifestyle that involves them buying local, eating organic etc. Whereas at the moment, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be reliant on cheap low-quality food, and clothing products which also have massively long supply chains and made cheaply overseas. So, in that sense, community wealth building is quite transformative it does entail significant material change, and it’s more holistically transformative than just buying local. As to how we get that across. I think that that’s something that needs a lot of thinking about. The Preston model has established itself in call it policy wonk circles quite strongly as an alternative economic doctrine, and that’s been good because decision-makers at a certain level can use it as a reference point and they can orient the changes that they want to make around and they can point to precedents say we’re going to try and follow Preston or adopt the Preston Model rather than just saying, we’ve got this really radical idea that hasn’t been tried anywhere just trust us, it’s going to work fine. The challenge of community wealth building is to do a similar thing on the ground within public consciousness. How we do that, I think an obvious thing is to focus on its material outcomes. So, are there more jobs or higher wages, are the jobs better quality, is trade union organisation encouraged. Beyond that, I think there’s this idea of “place-based pride”. I don’t know if that’s the right term to use but it is something that’s happening in Preston for example. People are happier and more proud to live where they do because it’s a nicer place to be and they get more out of it. In turn, they invest more in it. So there’s almost this virtuous circle that takes a long time to build up and develops quite gradually and very unspectacularly. So much about this is just about mundane change, that you may not even notice when it’s happening, but I think that’s what has to be focused on and building some sort of mass momentum behind that

CC: There was a particular example you discuss later in the book of a Welsh project whose participant visited Scotland…

REJ: Oh yeah, the Green Valleys Scheme 

CC: Exactly, yeah. And they were somewhat sceptical of the effectiveness of the community wealth building principles that were being advocated in order to achieve some of their goals. And it wasn’t until they went on a field trip to Scotland to see something that existed already that the energy emerged, and there is this really big thing about you need to actually see it and grasp it, don’t you see concrete results in order to spread the idea.

REJ: Oh yeah, as I was researching the book I was going through thinking this very sort of low-level anxiety thinking I’m just talking to local councillors and think tank people where are the ordinary people? When are they going to emerge and speak to me? So yeah, discovering the Green Valleys Project was really good and it’s happening in basically the same part of Wales I’m from, the South Wales Valley, so that was really exciting as well. I think that part of Wales is a really excellent example to look at to be honest because it’s been deindustrialised, it’s been post-industrial since the mid-1980s There’s been very little investment. There’s been very little to replace the amount of manufacturing workplace, heavily unionised jobs that were lost, and there’s been obvious immiseration, impoverishment and then the psychological and social effects that go along with that. So it’s a really grim place. The efforts made to change a lot or something I remember from when I was growing up in the 90s I was a kid, but we’d always be enlisted into proto focus groups and consultation schemes that were like, “Well, how would you like your town to look?”, you know, “what should we do”, and it’s like “well material investments”, obviously I didn’t think I was nine, but material investment would be nice. It’s no good just painting Welsh dragons everywhere, we need actual financial investment, and all these schemes have been tried endlessly. Martin Hoban, someone who writes about this, called it “The endless collapsing scrum” about regeneration schemes in South Wales, and what this has produced is just a widespread scepticism. It’s not hostility, it’s not nihilism, it’s just “meh, we’ve been told so many times that change is coming and it never has”, so people are just very sceptical. However, as you were saying, things like being taken somewhere and told “look here’s, here’s a practical, concrete idea of how people have changed stuff” do work. I think the take-up among the Welsh Valleys residents was just like: “Oh brilliant, now we’ve seen it come work. We can do it ourselves”.

CC: For me anyway, the 2019 British General Election hangs over some of the tone of the book. But before the election, I think it was a few weeks before, I remember reading an article on Richard Seymour’s Patreon. He was talking about how the state doing less over the past few decades has limited our collective sense of what’s possible, there’s this pervasive doubt that anything good can happen. This comes to my next question is sort of the difficulties in scaling community wealth building without a broader national movement that’s making big things possible.

REJ: Yeah, I mean one of the negative results of the Labour Party now being under new management is a lot of the supporting planks of the Corbyn leadership was John McDonnell’s attempt to reach out, really quite, quite broadly and in quite a nonpartisan way, to places and groups that were interested in reconfiguring social and economic ownership and power, So he referenced the Preston Model quite a lot. I think the 2017 report called “Alternative Models of Ownership” referenced community wealth building a lot, and they actually set up a community wealth building unit under Corbyn, which I think is now being dismantled. So there was scope for national support for these local initiatives. Actually, Labour’s previous leader Ed Miliband was interested in community wealth building too, but he didn’t really take it up, which just reinforces the idea that this isn’t particularly revolutionary or radical, it can fit in well with moderate social democracy as much as it can with autonomous anarcho-syndicalism. So I’d argue there was a potential there but that isn’t the route that the Labour Party has now gone down. So that’s, that’s disappointing because I certainly think, as Richard Seymour was saying, 30 years neoliberalism has not only evolved rolling back what the state can do, it’s also encouraged individual blame or responsibility for our circumstances. So, if your life is intolerable that’s because you haven’t tried hard enough or you haven’t bought enough scented candles, as opposed to looking at structural systemic causes. I think this is partly why the shift in the response to COVID-19 from the British government so shocking in some ways and so spectacular because we’ve been told for decades that the state simply couldn’t do this, and certainly couldn’t produce money and give it to people, that was unthinkable, that was communist, and yet they were doing it under a Tory government. It was really quite unsettling. Though I do think that response was perhaps more like states paternalism than it was a state which enabled people or empowered people. There was quite an odd contrast between that and the local mutual aid networks that sprung up. Again, really startlingly, I don’t even know where the energy behind it came from, but all of a sudden like my neighbours were texting and basically saying let’s start proto-soviets and go and requisition the big Tesco supermarket, and go and distribute it’s goods to the elderly. I was thinking this is amazing, what’s brought this on? But I think there definitely is a space there, that things like community wealth building can fill, now that we’ve seen that it is possible to fill that space. I think Brexit has kind of operated powerfully in a similar way to the pandemic (full disclosure, I voted remain): it’s just swept away a lot of previous certainties, and people are now thinking well Okay why don’t we replace something rather than just accept that there’s not going be any change, things are going to trundle along in the same away as they have for 30 years. That’s what Matthew was getting at by saying our way of taking back control is community wealth building because we haven’t taken back any control through Brexit, we’ve rescinded a lot of control and we’re now going to see massive deregulation and attacks on workers rights etc so if we actually want to take back control we have to do it ourselves and not just rely on voting for a government that’s supposedly going to do it.

CC: I noticed actually as we were talking that we hadn’t really talked about outsourcing and insourcing which I think from an architectural perspective, something about this idea of development as attracting inward investment from a big multinational rather than actually trying to build more projects that employ local contractors and things like that that was something that was really revolutionary in a very discreet way. The problem is, economies of scale are difficult to achieve with smaller local projects but if you adopt the Community Wealth Building mindset you can create new possibilities to fill the gaps in the supply chain, I don’t know if you maybe wanted to talk a little bit about that.

REJ: Sure, outsourcing as a political historian, it’s been interesting to trace the erosion of power, or, the actual taking back of power from local authorities to central government over the whole of the 20th century. In the 20s and 30s there were battles with Poplar Council in London over the setting of tax rates and those things were replicated then in the 80s in Liverpool and Lambeth. The focus on hostility to local government, then the focus on privatisation under Thatcher, and then even New Labour’s insistence on PPI private-public investment, which we didn’t call privatisation, it’s still basically was, now we seem to call it outsourcing rather than privatisation but again it does still involve the transfer of services that are effectively delivered by some arm of the state or local authorities and are democratically accountable to private companies or private developers, often involving millions of pounds of public money going with it as well, which is something that should be given a lot more attention. Preston, however, was a place where outsourcing very clearly failed, and the spectacular example of that was a development called the Tythe Barn which was going to be basically a massive multi-level shopping centre leisure complex, which had been talked about for decades, like many of these regeneration schemes are, and then the global financial crisis happened, the developers painted got cold feet, and pulled out, leaving the council with nothing really. A few years later, Preston’s central government grant was cut to zero. So it was really a question of we’ve got absolutely nothing, the few resources that were in our hands, have now been taken, so we can’t rely on previous models of wealth generation or wealth creation. And I think that was perversely helpful in arguing “well, okay we can’t try what we’ve tried already, we have some look at new models, new ideas”. And, the argument was very much “okay we’ve tried inward investments that have very conclusively, very spectacularly failed so why don’t we try looking to our own resources, and our own ideas?” This idea of the city rescuing itself is something that is very appealing about the model and something that I’m sure can be replicated elsewhere. Though, as I say, it will involve not only changes in procurement and looking for anchor institutions that councils can work with but also cultural changes. It seems, and it has seemed to me for decades, that many councils, particularly labour councils, basically see their job as managing decline, and they’ve swallowed the dogma that councils can do nothing, they’re completely powerless, and that’s a good thing because the private sector can always deliver better services which we’re seeing is completely untrue. Even something like track and trace, just to take a very spectacular example: a complete litany of failure by private corporations, even though they were given billions in public money. So, it seems absurd to me that councils are resistant to new ideas, when currently they’re presiding over a situation of just continual decline like obviously try, try something new, why not?

CC: It comes back to this question of “extreme common sense” doesn’t it? But there were some incredible figures about how much money was being brought back into the Preston economy and the wider Lancashire economy, just reading from the book here: 

In 2013 Six of the local institutions that signed up for the effort spent around 38 million pounds in Preston and 292 million pounds in Lancashire as a whole by 2017 this is skyrocketed 211 million pounds and 14 86 million pounds, respectively. The new localised contracts worn by breast and based businesses covered everything from school lunches fuel and legal services to large scale construction projects, 10s of millions have been won by local construction firms in recent years, resulting in the refurbishment of precedents iconic bus station for the family-run firm Conlin construction, and Eric rights not-for-profit companies, development of frog a court, the pension fund owned Student Development Council food budget of 1.6 million pounds for the provision of school meals too large for local providers to realistically bid for was broken into lots and awarded to farmers in the region.” 

So yeah, this instead of the money, leaving the local area, going into the bank accounts of big multinationals and ultimately, I guess, offshore tax havens, I think it’s pretty inspiring. Anyway, I think it’s probably important to point out, or at least give some lip service to the fact that we’re in a pandemic and maybe finish with what the future holds for the community wealth building approach and I think you were probably writing it, in between, so that that’s not really the subject of the book, but there was clearly some mention of it and I think one thing that was curious and inspiring considering that the UK the High Street is just sort of emptying out already, it was, but it’s increasingly disappearing that the concept of the Civic High Street, and something of a new way of looking at the way this high street is modelled. I don’t know if you could just sketch a picture of what kind of moves are being made in that direction and what the sort of possibilities are more generally, in light of the pandemic.

REJ: As you say, the book was written around the start of the pandemic so we could put in very basic gestures towards the negative effects that it has had, but you’re right that there has been some debate about what more positive stuff can we pull out of the changes that the country has gone through. I think it is generally acknowledged that the High Street as we used to know it for most of the 20th century, just isn’t appropriate or sustainable at the moment and the pandemic obviously exacerbated that because shops were closed, people turned to Amazon or Deliveroo, etc. So the power and the resources that those companies already had was exacerbated. Particularly within Britain, the idea that government has any interest in resuscitating or rehabilitating the high street has also been shown to be false through the pandemic and it seems likely that cities and town will be run even more than they are currently in the interest of private developers and probably focusing on turning high streets and commercial space into residential space, exacerbating gentrification, pricing out local people. So, set against that, there have been interesting ideas from the New Economics Foundation for one, on the idea of the “civic high street”, or the “social high street”. I think what lies behind this is something that we often forget: that the high street is not just commercial space, it is also a social and public space. There’s some research from the Foundational Economy that has found that people think of the high street as a social space. It’s somewhere they might go to meet up: in a park or a library or a cafe. So can we think about that, can we think about keeping those elements, which allow people to network, to have social contact, and also to organise? Could these spaces be used as advice centres? Could some of the new grassroots unions use them? Or could they become shared workspaces if everyone’s working remotely or working freelance? Could there be a more financially accessible range of workspaces (and that would obviously devolve into a sideline of more commercial outlets)? Without even thinking of them as functional places, could they just be spaces for leisure and recreation and could that work to foster intergenerational or community contact? So there are all these really interesting debates that are being had. We will need to rebuild, both after Brexit and after the pandemic, so why not rebuild something that we want, rather than letting the government do it? Just to go back to the disconnect between the national and the local, my most optimistic thinking about community wealth building is that, if it is a mosaic and a patchwork then, those things can gradually add up to something bigger than themselves and that’s maybe how we’ll get to a national or international transformative project, but that’s a very optimistic read.