The COVID-19 pandemic and following cost of living crisis, exacerbated by the wider economic cost of the Ukraine war exposed the urgent need for a paradigm shift in our communities. With projections of up to four million job losses and economic inactivity increasing to over 8 million, underscores the scale of the economic upheaval, while educational inequality and mental health challenges also worsened during lockdown and still 100,000 children are reported ‘missing’ from schools across the UK, who failed to return following lock down measures. Charities and social enterprises, crucial pillars of support in society, have been severely impacted, with a staggering 60% seeing a decline in income and 32% experiencing a shortage in volunteers.
It is clear that to "build back better", we require a fresh economic and social framework that supersedes the previous and current system, that realigns socio-economic success towards measures that mean real terms benefit to society as a whole rather than simply fulfilling the increasingly arbitrary and politicised notion of ‘growth’ at all costs - which rarely, if ever trickles down to improve the lives of the citizens who stack our shelves, drive our taxis, teach our children and change our bedpans. The high stimulus, low tax big business push of Tuss-o-nomics demonstrated in just a few short weeks how detrimental a myopic growth mindset can be to the very economy it is trying to grow; not least to fixed rate employees and Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) – the vast majority of the economy, which is often underserved in place of 7700 ‘large’ companies). To stress I am not one of the woke left ‘anti-growth coalition’; far from it, however I do believe that the real economy, and further SMEs ought to be the locus of our growth as opposed to the financial economy of large multi-national conglomerates.
Even prior to the pandemic, and the invasion of Ukraine by Putin, the social framework of our communities were grappling with deep-seated issues. Neglected regions in the North and Midlands, as well as coastal and rural communities, were receiving inadequate support from successive administrations.
The failure of once-thriving industrial towns and British farming communities, like the one I grew up in in the Cotswolds, to thrive as labour and capital gravitated towards each other and metropolitan centres has left many communities lagging behind. Despite this, individuals are still and rightly, deeply attached to their hometowns despite facing barriers of poor mobility, skills and education training and networks, which make relocating to the metropolis an unviable prospect.
To preserve our rich communities, indispensable community organisations and innovative enterprises, a support structure must be put in place that goes beyond the ‘moving the furniture’ of modest rates changes or grants and requires a paradigm shift which places our communities at the centre of a new industrial complex.
While the government's commitment to "level up" the country is a commendable first step, more must be done to bolster the role of communities. The time has come for a novel economic and social model that prioritises people and communities over mere economic growth. The reconstruction of our communities and country must not merely shield us from global pressures but lay the foundation for a more promising future for all.
Various strategies have been implemented to establish a new economic and social model that prioritizes people and communities rather than solely prioritizing economic growth. Let's delve into some examples of these strategies in detail.
One key approach that has been gaining popularity is community wealth building. In the United States, cities such as Cleveland and Preston have successfully implemented community wealth building initiatives. For instance, in Cleveland, the Evergreen Cooperative model was established, which is a network of worker-owned businesses that provides job opportunities and anchors wealth in the local community. The initiative has led to a 15% increase in the number of jobs and a 10% reduction in poverty rates in the targeted neighbourhoods.
Another strategy that has gained significant momentum is the circular economy. In Europe, the adoption of circular economy principles has the potential to generate an additional €1.8 trillion by 2030. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, transitioning to a circular economy could create over 700,000 jobs in Europe alone. Moreover, the European Union's Circular Economy Action Plan aims to increase the EU's resource efficiency and strengthen its competitiveness, thereby contributing to a more sustainable future.
The de-growth movement, which advocates for a reduction in economic activity, is gaining popularity worldwide. Whilst some thinking around the de-growth movement is significantly problematic and calls for the whole implausible and undesirable anti-financialised society, some thinking within the movement ought to be considered. For instance, in Bhutan, the government measures progress using the Gross National Happiness Index instead of GDP, which prioritizes well-being, environmental conservation, and cultural preservation. Similarly, here in the United Kingdom, the Happy City Index, which measures well-being indicators such as community trust, access to nature, and life satisfaction, has been implemented in several cities.
Furthermore, The New Social Covenant, authored by Danny Kruger, Conservative Member of Parliament for Devises in Wiltshire, sets out a vision for rebuilding society based on a renewed sense of civic responsibility and mutual support. The report advocates for the creation of a "social covenant" between citizens, government, and civil society, which seeks to restore trust and create a sense of shared responsibility.
Borrowing from the Big Society, Kruger calls for the government to invest in strengthening local democracy, supporting social infrastructure, and promoting community-based organizations to create a more sustainable and inclusive society.
Furthermore the report emphasizes the role of volunteers and civil society organizations in addressing social issues, such as homelessness, addiction, and social isolation. Kruger rightly argues that these organizations are better equipped to provide tailored and holistic support, and the government should support their efforts. Placing power and resource into the hands of the communities that understand the issues they face is a deeply conservative idea and furthers the move of Conservative governments over many years towards greater devolution to regional and local authorities.
Whilst there is clearly no single ‘best’ way to deliver a new economic and social model that prioritizes people and communities, there are several key elements that can contribute to creating a more equitable and sustainable society which we must actively look to implement:
- Local ownership and community wealth building: promoting local ownership of businesses and assets, supporting worker cooperatives and social enterprises, and investing in local infrastructure can help to create and keep wealth within our communities and reinvest into community needs.
- Sustainable and circular economy: adopting circular economy principles, reducing waste, and promoting resource efficiency can lead to economic growth while reducing negative environmental impacts. Sometimes referred to as economic landscapes or systems, understanding that regions, whilst part of a national and international market, operates as a cohesive unit (which may need improving to greater or lesser extent) and this unit is deeply interconnected which if understood correctly can be a powerful driver of real growth, opportunity and innovation.
- Focus on well-being and social value: measuring progress beyond economic indicators, prioritizing well-being and social value, and involving communities in decision-making processes can create more inclusive and participatory societies that maximise the opportunity within society rather than interventions dictated to communities.
- Civic responsibility and social covenant: fostering a sense of civic responsibility and social covenant among citizens, government, and civil society can help to build trust, promote mutual support, and create a more resilient society.
By combining these elements and tailoring them to specific contexts, it may be possible to deliver a new economic and social model that prioritizes people and communities beyond economic growth alone. However, this will require a collaborative effort from all stakeholders, including government, businesses, civil society, and individuals, to achieve this vision.