Alternatives are flourishing because noisy, energetic participation chimes with so many people.
We’re going on forever… but we’re genuinely sad to see that Aditya Chakrabortty’s Alternatives column in the Guardian coming to the end of its run this week. We have been tracking the same beat - looking for examples of viable, sustainable and surprising localism, both cultural and economic.
Aditya reflects interestingly on his journey - excerpts below, with some of our own highlights:
…Most of these protagonists live in worlds that, as VS Pritchett wrote of Rudyard Kipling’s characters, are “thickly neighboured”. Witney’s Andrew Lyons jacked in a steady job with Stagecoach to help run community buses because he hated the idea of pensioners trapped in their houses.
Matthew Brown, now council leader of Preston, took me on a pilgrimage to see where Joy Division played. These aren’t Margaret Thatcher’s atomised individuals, nor are they Cameron’s broken Britain: they care enough about their homes and their neighbours to try and make things better.
Be it organising community runs in parks, letting out an empty shopping centre to charities and social enterprises, awarding contracts to local businesses rather than multinationals: most of the Alternatives challenge how the market measures value.
Many of the Alternatives depend on others getting involved. These are noisy and energetic organisations. A conference hall giving dutiful ovations to some dreary frontbencher they are not….
Two big shackles hold in check the growth of more alternatives. Easily the biggest is capital: ventures such as co-ops struggle to raise the necessary cash. The holders of capital often seek short-term rewards, are unwilling to take large risks, and have no place on their spreadsheets for social purpose.
When the community pub the Bevy began, it barely had enough money to keep trading – it was running to stand still. And as Robbie Davison of CanCook points out, he has to beg for the kind of sums the City treats as loose change. When these enterprises do find sources of cash, they often find it comes at a cost to their values.
Second, the overwhelming centralisation of the British state can stifle development of bottom-up initiatives. Whether in Southend or Sunderland, it makes little difference: financial and political power is concentrated in central London. The UK has among the lowest levels of revenue-raising by local taxes in the OECD group of rich countries. We lag behind Ireland and Hungary. So if a city like Plymouth wants to develop a social economy, it has to do so on a shoestring.
As a direct result of these two factors, there is not yet a critical mass of purpose-driven ventures. There are more social enterprises than you might think – 100,000 of them with a total of 2 million employees – but most are pretty small and constrained.
In places like Mondragon in Spain’s Basque country or in northern Italy, the co-operative economy is vast and can act as a nurturing network for newcomers. In Britain, the equivalent scene is someone hunched over a laptop at 2am filling in endless grant applications to prove to a doubtless kindly bunch of people in London that they are doing something of social value.
Such serious constraints prevent our Alternatives from becoming mainstream. They block too many people from authoring a different future for themselves and their home towns.