Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

April 23, 2008

Local Alchemy – reinventing local economies

Local alchemy is a programme developed and piloted by the New Economics Foundation with England’s East Midlands Development Agency. The organisers are working on a draft description of sustainable community regeneration. Here is their 7 point list – they consider this to be work-in-progress.

Radical Economics

What sustainable regeneration looks like

• Diverse range of businesses and enterprises in terms of size, social and private mix, and diversity of goods and services provided.
• Positive local money and resource flows ( a high local multiplier and local re-use of waste)
• Strong local asset base including local people’s attitudes, skills and knowledge; physical, financial and natural resources.
• Responsive public and business sector which is working to strengthen and invest in the local economy.
• Strong community and civic voice, including local activism, leadership, volunteering, and engagement in debate.
• Sustainability and a reduced environmental footprint.
• Increased understanding of economic, cultural and ecological inter-connections that link communities, span the globe and impact on the future.

“Where did all the money go?” asked Glen JeRkins, at nets Local Alchemy conference in Leicester, referring to the massive government regeneration programme as ‘New Deal for Consultants’.

In the three decades since the Urban Regeneration Act, billions has been spent on rundown neighbourhoods, said net policy director Andrew Simms, but what is there to show for it? Shiny new buildings, maybe Olympic facilities, but the same old poverty.

The purpose of this conference was to set out what can be done instead -but in a new way.

Glen is from the Marsh Farm estate in Luton, which has been on the receiving end of conventional top-down regeneration. He took part in the net conference as a kind of summit meeting to name a new direction for regeneration -not largesse delivered from above which seeps away, but using what resources are there already, people, space, money flows and imagination.

Previously, the outlines of sustainable regeneration were always in the form of a list -plugging the money flows leaks, participation, enterprise, environment. This conference was to pull t4at list together into a coherent whole, to make the shift into the mainstream.

The result was more than 200 people gathering at the Peepul Centre in Leicester, from local government, academia and the voluntary sector -even the fire brigade -and a new manifesto for sustainable regeneration, not yet finished.

It was a reflection of the success of Local Alchemy to bring all those voices and experiences together, and to bring in another factor -resilience in the face of climate change “The real key thing,” said former government minister Hilary Armstrong, summing up in the first session, “is to give people the belief and confidence in themselves to work effectively with other people.”

That is the heart of the matter of an approach that regards people’s assets as broader than simply the money they baven’t got. Those assets include the money that flows through their area, their relationships, imagination and skills, and this crucial confidence to work others.

Bring all those together, set them to work, and you have real regeneration, that works for local people and for the planet as well.

The other plenary speakers expanded this central idea, Ben Brangwyn on the transition towns movement, time banks founder Edgar Cahn on co-production, and Just Change ‘founder Sam Thekaekara from South India on holding local and global together.

We are working within an economic system that requires producers, consumers and capital, said Stan -“why do the owners of capital always get the lion’s share of the rewards?”

There is a choice, said the speakers, and it is possible for local people t~ organise regeneration by different rules.

The plenary speakers all introduced new ways of looking at the hidden assets that poorer neighbourhoods already possess, which can drag them out of poverty -from basic skills to caring, from links with producer communities to basic confidence, spending power, and the money that is already flowing through the system.

“It’s beyond cash -we are the cash,” said one of the conference delegates.

What does this mean? Does it mean that economics takes a wider, more ambitious role than before, as Neil McInvoy from the Centre of Local Economic Strategies put it? But then you might also be stuck with some of the failed assumptions of conventional economics.

“Will we ever understand that some places just don’t heed to grow?” he said asked.
Or does it mean that neighbourhoods are taking over some of the job that the outside investment, and conventional economic growth was supposed to do, because -~ net director Stewart Wallis put it -“our economic system isn’t fit for purpose”?

Either way, it means a challenge for conventional regeneration, as it edges towards the new sustainable version -but achingly slowly, given that the government has managed to reduce the targets on Local Strategic Partnerships from over 600 to 1.98 -still what Neil
McInroy called “massive fetters”.

Given also that the word ‘sustainable’ appears in the latest Sub-national Review document
44 times, but 40 of those in refers only to the ability to grow bigger. But if want to put your real assets to work, you have to measure the right things, When the wrong assets get measured and the others get ignored, then it isn’t surprising that regeneration fails in its basic task, net organisers set out before hand a draft description of a sustainable, enterprising community.

That list was kicked around by groups at the end of the conference, adding and subtracting words and sentences, out of which a consensus will eventually emerge -this is ongoing business.

Meanwhile, the debate continues, Do we need a new kind of regeneration professional to achieve that, and -if so –what kind of institutions would best support them? Can we reform the existing ones or do we have to start again? Do we use the language of
policy-makers or go it alone and make it happen anyway?

And most of all, how do we measure the right outcomes so that we get the futures we want.

Diverse range of businesses and enterprises in terms of size, social and private mix, and diversity of goods and services produced.