CLES joined forces with Friends Provident Foundation and Barrow Cadbury Fund to deliver fringe events at three party conferences this year. CLES has a longstanding interest in this area, with a growing range of work across the UK and beyond. It seems as though in many places we are in the midst of a new energy, where local communities, local government and commercial players are seeking and developing antidotes to economic development, which all too often fails to deliver the social and environmental outcomes required. Specifically, this includes work on ‘good local economies’ (with Friends Provident Foundation) and work on anchor institutions (with Barrow Cadbury Trust) in Birmingham.
Focussing on building local economies at these fringe events, the different political perspectives on the topic were always going to be interesting. And participation from MPs and party members from all three parties told us a lot about how this theme is received, how high up it is on agendas, and its potential for being developed in any meaningful way.
Judging from the lively debate and discussion generated by around 170 people attending all three events (often in a packed Fringe Programme), the subject of local economies is clearly of some interest, despite the different slant and direction of parties and party members. At the Liberal Democrat party conference the panel included Simon Bowkett (CEO of Exeter CVS), Baroness Janke and Cllr Gerald Vernon Jackson (Leader of Portsmouth Liberal Democrats). This event focused on devolution, role of local government, and its relationship with the social sector. The nature and number of questions from the floor and the ensuing discussion demonstrated clearly that local government has a key role to play in enabling a social dimension to the economy and promoting local supply chains. However, there was also a sense that local government needed to be ‘set free’ from Whitehall, so that it has more of its own ‘financial control’, can be a more effective economic player, and play a role in investing in the local economy. And as Chair of these events I sensed very clearly that what was needed was a ‘democratic devolution’ with devolution going stronger and deeper, than is presently the case.
The Labour Party conference fringe event had contributions from Cllr Matthew Brown (Preston City Council and with whom CLES had worked closely on a previous piece of work on anchor institutions ‘Progressing Community Wealth Building through Anchor Institutions’ and Heather Wakefield (Head of Local Government, Unison, and who was also a member of the Fawcett Society commission on women and local government). There was a rich discussion around the definition and reality of ‘new local economics’. Overall, there was a sense that there are many good things going on, but that we need to start small, experiment, and spread the good stories. Matthew Brown described the pioneering work in Preston, highlighted a suite of activities, including opening up more of local procurement to local suppliers across six major city Anchor Institutions, facilitating municipal energy as well as the growth of cooperatives. Heather Wakefield picked up the theme of greater social justice, and the role of ‘economic decency’ especially relating to women in employment, social care and the care economy more generally. Discussion took us into infrastructure investment, including the need to see social investment as of equal importance to hard infrastructure.
The Conservative party conference fringe had contributions from Kirsty McHugh (Employment Related Services Association) and Andrew O’Brien (Charity Finance Group). Here there was a very different focus on vocational skills and the importance of a confluence between public, private and social economies. Discussion was broad- ranging, but tellingly discussion kept returning to the importance of place, particularly the cross sector inter-dependencies which come together in place. And there was a recognition that the voluntary and community sector had a key role to play within the supply chain.
At all the party conferences, there was more discussion than usual around the role of the state and the market than at previous Party Conferences I’ve been to. And across all the parties there was a palpable sense that the centrist liberal economic model frame was under greater scrutiny and/or being questioned than ever before. What came out loud and clear from these fringes was that the local economy has a key role in this new questioning. There is no doubt that many of the elements needed to grow this local economic agenda are in place and can be built upon.