At Stir To Action's "Playground for the New Economy" Festival, there were examples and inspirations aplenty
A/UK spent some of this week at Stir To Action’s Playground For the New Economy Festival in Frome, Somerset. Stir To Action have featured in these pages before, and we were delighted to hang out with a range of practitioners, enterprise owners and thinkers who believe economics can be practised “as if people mattered” (to quote Schumacher’s original strapline for Small Is Beautiful).
Indra Adnan will dwell more widely and deeply on the event in our Editorial later this week - but we just want to highlight a few names and organisations who expressed a strong take on the virtues of local economic power and democracy.
The US-based Democracy Collaborative had a strong presence at Playground - their theories of community-wealth building originally triggered the Cleveland Model, which then went on to inspire the Preston Model in the UK (more on that later).
Another of DC’s initiatives is The Next System Project, which tries to build a narrative around cooperatives, civil society organisations and local government pulling together, and pointing to this as anew economic “system”, beyond extreme capitalism (and extreme socialism). Joe Guinan of the Next System Project was there at the Playground to launch his book, People Get Ready, a hopeful but tough-minded primer for the first 100 days of a potential Corbyn Labour government.
The head of Preston Council, Matthew Brown, sat down for an illuminating conversation with Democracy Collaborative’s rep in Europe, Sarah McKinley. The Preston Model has been well covered here - but it was fascinating and enjoyable to see its forger in person. Matthew confessed to not being a fan of the political sphere (“it’s too nasty for me at times”), and only drifted into being a councillor from a desire to “solve problems”.
Matthew confessed that a degree of dogged determination had been required over the last ten years - “many people just rubbished us at the beginning, thought what we were proposed could never be done or would fall apart. It’s incredibly important to break up the existing models in people’s heads - just a presumption that economics and markets worked only one way”.
Other than the tens of extra millions of pounds that have been brought back into the local Preston economy, the next steps for Preston were a) to increase the number of cooperative enterprises feeding into the community, and b) to forge a better system for linking together the council as procurer of services, and local providers being able to match their needs.
We also caught up with Avon Mutual in another session on Community Financing - we’d covered this bold attempt to set up a community-oriented bank before here. Its founder Jules Peck reminded us of why they were painstakingly working with the banking regulators at the moment, to set up this kind of bank, covering a big chunk of the West Country. As their current blurb says:
Our vision is to help repair a broken banking system in our community; which has seen bank branches and cash points closed, various scandals and low levels of lending to businesses.
At the same time the average person in the street has lost their connection with their Bank. We don’t want banking in our region to be unequal, we want to build a bank for all people who want to find a better alternative that works for them.
Peck emphasised that their banking customers would also be members of the organisation, each with a single vote - whether they were Bristol Council lodging millions, or a single individual user.
It was also fascinating to hear where the Bristol Credit Union was after 20 years of activity - which is providing loans and services to the city, but also being “The Central Bank” to the Bristol Pound, a very long standing local currency that has now gone digital, as well as maintaining a paper currency.
The main takeaway of this session was the careful dance that any community-oriented finance initiative has to perform with national financial regulators. “You’ll be glad to hear that it’s pretty hard and exacting to set up a bank in this country”, quipped Peck. We have blogged on rumblings at the tops of Scottish and Westminster governments about legislation to support the creation of community banks. One hopes they will be listening to dogged, inspiring pioneers like these.
More on the rest of the festival in the next few days. But just one last mention for our pals, the podcasters Utopia Dispatch, who were piecing together a show based on the Festival, and managed to capture a merry A/UK co-initiator for an interview… looking forward to that (we think)…