Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

June 4, 2008

The value of common wealth

Matt Jarratt of think tank Scottish Council Foundation, has written an interesting piece about ‘the commons’ – a new way to express a very old idea – that some forms of wealth belong to all of us and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all

Matt Jarratt, Scottish Council Foundation

The commons… a progressive framework for the future of Scotland?

Our interpretations of what it takes to create and sustain a healthy, developing nation are changing; they have to.

Where once the chief priorities of government were to promote and facilitate the financial, personal and social security of its citizens, the language of governance has altered to include less easily measured, arguably more complex priorities. Happiness, health and wellbeing, environmental sustainability, community cohesion and integration, social justice and collective civic responsibility are concepts occupying policy makers from across the political spectrum.

The driver of that change is clear. Whilst it may be political hyperbole to argue, as David Cameron has, that society is ‘broken’, his comments strike a chord with many across Britain. In Scotland, as across much of the rest of the UK, the equality gap is growing; crime continues to evolve and become ever more sophisticated; we are increasingly aware of the damage we are doing to our environment, yet we keep doing it; fewer people feel part of their local community; and businesses are perceived, despite their often meaningful nods to ‘corporate social responsibility’, to be pursuing financial gain to the detriment of all else. Whilst the so called ‘softer’ government priorities listed above have been around for a while, the desired outcomes of a ‘healthier’, ‘happier’ nation remain elusive.

These issues, which in one form or another dominate the news agenda across the West, are a manifestation of our abandonment of the ‘commons’. According to US based commons theorist David Bollier, ‘the commons is a new way to express a very old idea — that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all.’ Daniel Leighton of the UK based journal –I—Renewal contextualises the commons as an ‘umbrella term linking a seemingly disparate range of material and immaterial resources that are said to morally, if not legally, belong to us all as ‘gifts’ of nature and culture’. Leighton cites the forms of common wealth which belong to all of us as including our environment, our land, our intellectual and social creations, our democratic institutions and our collective health, safety and welfare. ‘The values of the commons are… values of sustainability, equality, liberty and fraternity’.

These sentiments certainly chime with much contemporary political discourse, but do they mean anything? After all, Leighton acknowledges that ‘contemporary commons rhetoric is a metaphorical appropriation of the criticisms of the original enclosure movement that accompanied the development of capitalism in England’… A ‘metaphorical appropriation?!’ How does that relate to the realities of contemporary policy making?

The Scottish Council Foundation argues that the commons may offer a progressive framework through which to view many of the challenges facing policy makers. For example, the debate surrounding how best to tackle climate change whilst continuing to develop the economy has yet to be convincingly addressed by any mainstream political party. But the commons solution to renewable energy is genuinely innovative, economically productive and environmentally sustainable. A fine example of this is the island of Eday, off Orkney –I–(see below), which provides a practical, profitable and community led response to the need for cheap sustainable energy, which typifies what the commons is all about.

Social enterprise, a practical manifestation of the commons and the model for the Orkney example below, is in vogue. Support for the social economy is being emphasised in, amongst other areas, public sector procurement guidelines, health and wellbeing legislation, business support services and it is increasingly perceived as a solution to long term unemployment. Other high profile initiatives which represent commons thinking are also achieving widespread support; for example the planned distribution of laptop computers to some of the world’s poorest children, to enable them to benefit from the common educational opportunities offered through the internet; the increasing availability of free computer software online; the growing recognition of the value of attractive public parks and green spaces; and increased investment in public works of art.

In Scottish policy making, reconsidering well worn arguments through this framework could lead to fresh ideas on the challenge of bringing about greater social cohesion. The Scottish National Party election manifesto of May 2007 committed to; “giving deprived communities the ability to opt for a new ’empowered status’, which might allow local people to co-manage a proportion of public spending and services” and “devolving greater responsibilities to community councils, including possible responsibility for a portion of current local spending.” These commitments are encouraging, but many in the regeneration sector are concerned that current policies do not either go far enough or display enough of a grasp of what ‘empowering communities’ really means.

Indeed according to Dr. Adam Dinham (2005) of Anglia Ruskin University the term ‘community’ has become damagingly linked to ‘poverty’, in that the designation of ‘community conceals in its cosiness the realities of poverty and disadvantage’. Revisiting ideas of ‘community’, and particularly decision making powers over common assets held within communities could open up a new conversation. It could spark moves towards greater cohesion between community groups, local and national government and non-governmental actors such as charities and businesses.

So far so good; the value of common asset ownership and management is being recognised, and its potential in delivering on many of the key challenges affecting the whole of the UK is the source of much enthusiasm. But behind this excitement is there enough substance to suggest anything more than a passing fad? Perhaps the lack of controversy or genuine debate surrounding the aspects of the commons which have achieved political popularity suggests we are skirting the real issues; using social enterprise as a satisfyingly ‘ethical’ solution where it suits, reclaiming and improving common community facilities only when it’s in someone’s political or corporate interest to pay for it, encouraging environmentally sustainable consumer behaviour as long as the multi-nationals don’t mind. In short, are we dealing with the easy, peripheral issues, but failing to tackle the difficult, meaningful ones?

We must recognise that tackling the most significant environmental, social and economic challenges in a sustainable and mutually beneficial way will be painful, and if the commons is to provide any answers then the difficult questions must be addressed. An example of these questions being faced occurred recently with the controversy over American entrepreneur Donald Trump’s proposed multi million pound golf resort near Aberdeen –I–(see case study). This is an issue of the commons; enclosure versus universal access; capitalism versus socialism; the economy versus the environment; globalisation versus localism. These questions will continue to arise, and if we are to address them with sustainable, visionary solutions then we must face up to the fact that the immediate impact of the right decisions will not always benefit everyone straight away. Added to this is the fact that policy decisions, when viewed through the framework of the commons, can become more complicated still by the fact that two apparently opposing options may both enhance common assets but in different ways.

However, aiming to meet these challenges through an explicitly stated commons agenda will arguably make good decision making easier, and could make the right decisions easier to discern. This is because the commons is a long term, holistic framework. Whilst it is typically a concept of the left, and specifically the anti-globalisation, global justice lobby (Leighton 2008), this need not exclusively be the case. A commons framework does not need to stand against economic development or corporate expansion, but it does demand that social and environmental returns from public and corporate decision making be considered alongside and in equal regard to financial returns, and that decisions are taken on a common basis, where all parts of the community are empowered to effect change. This is radical, but it is achievable.

The discourse of the commons is at an embryonic stage, and not many people know about it. But much contemporary policy argument in Scotland conforms, albeit unconsciously, to the commons ideology. As such it would be of great value to explore how Westminster and the devolved administrations might look in policy terms if they paid explicit attention to the protection of common intellectual, community, environmental and physical assets. Most importantly, policy makers would have greater opportunity to find innovative, inclusive and above all sustainable solutions to the most complex policy challenges.

Our altered interpretations of what it takes to create and sustain a healthy, developing nation will arguably achieve greater clarity and genuine progressiveness when we embrace the commons agenda.