Placing community wealth-building at the heart of economic planning, Tom Arthur MSP

SCOTLAND has extraordinary economic potential. Our natural resources, talent, creativity, innovation, academic institutions and business base are held in high regard across the world.

This is recorded in our National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET) which recognises the opportunities and challenges we face and sets out our strategy for developing an economy based equally on prosperity and wellbeing. The mark of a successful wellbeing economy will be that all citizens, localities and regions can benefit.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw people in communities pulling together to support their neighbours. This builds on decades of community-led action.  

Whilst no longer experiencing the same conditions experienced at the peak of the pandemic, we know we still have significant challenges to tackle – locally, regionally and nationally. These challenges are fiscal, demographic, socio-economic and environmental. And we also know that Brexit and the current cost-of-living crisis have exacerbated these challenges.

The increased sense of localism that emerged during the pandemic has highlighted the importance of local places, businesses and people as essential elements of our economic resilience.

We need to capitalise on that and use this opportunity to leverage the economic power of our localities and the innovative and collaborative spirit of our communities. 

If we are to address the deeply-ingrained economic, environmental and social issues faced by some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged and fragile communities, we need a sustained and co-ordinated approach across all delivery partners.

We must take a broader view of what it means to be a prosperous economy, society and country, moving beyond traditional attitudes and measures of growth, and ensuring that our economy puts our people and the environment at the heart of economic activity.

The principles of a wellbeing economy cannot be achieved by only redistributing a portion of wealth created. These principles and that core ambition need to be hard-wired into everything we do in economic policy, planning and strategic investment from the word go.

I believe that the internationally-recognised Community Wealth Building model of economic development is a significant new tool that can help us to realise this ambition, by enabling practical and tangible interventions to be taken by local authorities and their community planning partners to maximise the benefits of existing and new investment for localities, people and businesses.

The Five Pillars of Community Wealth Building – as identified by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, focussed on spending, inclusive ownership, workforce, finance and land and property – help organisations to understand the changes they can make to build a stronger, fairer, greener, local economy that works for everyone.

We will not turn the world upside down overnight. However, the model allows us to pursue a course that makes every public pound work harder to create and protect local and regional jobs; offer workers high-quality employment; place more assets in the hands of communities; shorten supply chains and encourage new democratic business model such as co-operatives and employee-owned firms.

If Community Wealth Building principles can be placed at the core of every local government economic development plan – this will provide a strategic and operational framework within which we can reform and restructure our local economies – prompting a bold rewiring of our economic systems.

On a recent visit to Scotland, Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of this approach, commented on how we in Scotland are fast becoming a global leader in Community Wealth Building.

We should celebrate this, but there is still much to do. We have made real inroads and the enthusiasm is clear. However, we need to build on the work of pioneering local authorities like North Ayrshire and others to advance Community Wealth Building.      

We have strong, supportive networks and relationships across communities, local government, the ‘third’, public and private sectors and funding partners to help us deliver on these ambitions. But there is always room for expansion and improvement. 

And I am delighted that [Scots regeneration agency] SURF have established a Community Wealth Building cross-sectoral network of practitioners, to improve the awareness of the model and the part the we can all play in advancing this collective approach.   

I’m looking forward to learning from this network about what we can do to maximise the benefits of our actions and considering how any experiences can inform delivery and influence the development of future legislation.

It is important to emphasise that the Community Wealth Building approach is not intended as a replacement for any current efforts to grow or regenerate our local and regional economies. It is a refinement of current practice in economic development.

Community Wealth Building offers a practical model but also a strategic guiding principle to set the tone for how all activity fits together to revitalise and maintain successful wellbeing economies at the local level.    

We have supported pilot work in Clackmannanshire, the south of Scotland, Western Isles, Tay Cities/Fife and Glasgow City regions to deliver place-specific development activity across the ‘five pillars’ in a mix of local areas and wider regions. 

In addition, council areas and sectors – including health boards – have been inspired by pioneering work underway in the Ayrshire region, assisted by £3m of Scottish Government investment through the Ayrshire Growth Deal.

I’ve seen for myself the difference and impact that CWB is already having in these localities across Scotland and next week will embark upon a series of visits across the country to meet with those implementing some of this work on the ground – including visits to employee-owned businesses and co-operatives harnessing the power of inclusive ownership to benefit the communities in which they operate. 

Also of relevance, at the national policy level, is the emerging National Planning Framework (fourth edition). The draft NPF4 proposes a people-centred approach to local economic development and includes a specific new planning policy to support community wealth-building, setting out how priorities for this should be addressed in local development plans. Looking ahead, I intended to lay a revised NPF4 in the Scottish Parliament in the autumn.

The 2021 Programme for Government confirmed our plans to develop legislation on Community Wealth Building during this parliamentary session. 

The legislation we plan to introduce will attempt to address blockages identified that are impeding the implementation of Community Wealth Building, and support further embedding of the approach across Scotland.  

The legislation must be enabling. Supporting public ‘anchor’ organisations, the ‘third’ and private sectors to recognise themselves as economic actors in the localities in which they are based. The primary purpose of many contributory organisations may be to provide excellent services. However, we need to harness and foster the economic agency of all relevant bodies.

During my discussions with the pilot areas and other key stakeholders, a number of barriers and impediments have been discussed. My officials and I are exploring these to ascertain if these require policy, practice or indeed legislative remedy.

We are being supported in this endeavour by our CWB Bill Steering Group, which has representatives from the pilot areas, private and third sector, and, of course, SURF.

This support is invaluable and will augment wider discussions ensuring legislative proposals are robust, proportionate and support our ambition to enable further implementation of the model.   

To this end, I look forward to working collaboratively with all interested stakeholders  to ensure the legislation cements and augments the vital role local authorities and their partners in public, private and third sectors can play in advancing a wellbeing economy. 

This engagement will be supported by formal consultation before introduction of any legislative proposals during this parliamentary session. 

Community Wealth Building legislation will of course sit alongside and support work underway; for example, the review of the Community Empowerment Act and the new Land Reform Bill

The Community Empowerment Act will consider how local communities can have more say over how local public assets are used – whether that is taking on ownership of land or buildings or strengthening local decision-making over how services are delivered or resources allocated. 

We are also committed to bring forward a new Land Reform Bill in this parliamentary session. 

We want to ensure that our land is owned, managed, and used in ways that rise to the challenges of today: net zero, nature restoration, and a just transition.

I would encourage you all to participate both the review and consultation, drawing on your experience and expertise.  

I urge us all to be ambitious and bold to ensure we grasp the full potential of Community Wealth Building for the benefit of all regions and people in Scotland by supporting good jobs, higher earnings and local business growth, tackling under-utilised assets in our town centres and rural and island economies, unleashing community ownership and ensuring local communities have a greater stake in their local economy and collective wealth.

Tom Arthur MSP is Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth in the Scottish Government. This is an edited version of his keynote speech, delivered virtually at the annual conference of regeneration agency, SURF, on August 25 2022.

Pictured: Crieff, Perthshire, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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