Another road to the local: a think-tank and a mega-bank collaborate to serve Bury

There is definitely a shift of focus in the general top-down political discussion towards local empowerment. We noted the current Conservative government’s Civil Society Strategy a month ago. This week, various events in and around the Labour Party conference - particularly The World Transformed event - are featuring both Rojava anarchists and community wealth builders.

We welcome the shift - but we’re keeping to our non-party-political stance. We seek to encourage an entirely new language about power, voice and agency, talking to all those people who still determinedly point their social activities in any direction, other than towards the centuries-old parties (as our post on membership last week thumpingly confirmed).

So what can the skills department of a high-street retail bank, and the deliberations of a metropolitan bank, do together with a small town near Manchester?

Barclays Bank and Demos are jointly launching an initiative called Building Thriving Local Economies. The bank’s rationale is interesting:

It is extremely difficult to drive local economic success from ‘the centre’; there is no lever that national governments, or central banks can pull to drive local economic growth. We believe that we need to look at this ‘from the local up’.

Our Thriving Local Economies initiative will focus on four pilot areas in geographically different parts of the country and representing different types of place. One will be in a metropolitan area; one in a smaller town; one in a rural area and one in a coastal community. [The first is in Bury, in the Greater Manchester Area]

In each pilot area we will undertake local research to better understand the economy on the ground. We will engage with the local authority, local MPs as well as business and community groups and local businesses to get their views and insight into key local opportunities and challenges.

Working with these partners, we will develop insight into the key opportunities and challenges which exist in different areas.

The bank seems to have taken on the findings of Demos’ research about the massively increased diversity of input needed, for complex localities to thrive economically and socially. Graphics like this are quoted (original source):

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The Demos report goes on to say:

Many research and charitable organisations have concluded that a broader national approach is less effective than it might be because it lacks local specificity and because it does not generate opportunities for citizen engagement. On the other hand, there are many examples at fine work at community, town and city level.

These local policies have many similarities with national and central government approaches – such as investing in skills and industry clustering – but the tend to be implemented in a much more citizen-centric way, using the assets of local entrepreneurs and anchor organisations who know the locale.

So—let’s see. Might a note of understandable distrust arise at the spectacle of New Labour’s historic think-tank, and one of the most bruising global-corporate banks, coming together to preach the language of solidarity economics? Could we be the first to coin the term “local-wash” here?

One of the most powerful inputs into A/UK, in our first year, was our involvement with CtrlShift and Open Coop. If you sample these spaces, the experimentalism and open spirit in which local economic empowerment is pursued looks much more attractive, than the descent of established organisations on a locality (who nevertheless admit that their old paradigms of enterprise don’t have all the answers).

But if true change is about seeing how the whole system of any phenomenon works, we should at least see such initiatives as a test of whether the “top-down” really wants to listen to the “bottom-up”. Optimism and good faith can themselves be powerful resources.