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Economic Justice

Accentuating the positive – responding creatively to austerity

Adrian Bua, Social Policy researcher at NEF blogs about NEF’s new report on creative responses to austerity measures.  This blog was originally published on NEF’s website


Austerity policies have put communities and organisations across the UK under intense pressure. While the negative social consequences are well documented, less attention has been paid to the range of creative responses to austerity measures coming from local authorities, housing associations, grant-makers and funders, charitable and voluntary sector, campaigners and activists.


While these are difficult times, groups across the UK are finding ways to maintain and even expand their activities. Driven by the aims of promoting wellbeing and tackling inequality, they are taking action to mitigate the effects of austerity, to challenge it, and to imagine alternative responses.


The landscape of responses


In our new report, out today, we draw together a set of existing examples to map out the range of strategies that communities throughout the UK are using to respond to austerity, building a strong knowledge base to support new groups in their ambitions and catalyse further pursuits that aim to achieve social justice.


We show how different groups across the UK have been:


Adapting by making austerity more liveable or workable.
Innovative local authorities have taken creative approaches to public spending which foster local economies, and have tried to make the most of existing assets rather than selling them off. Examples include public service reforms intended to build upon and mobilise local assets to improve service delivery, as well as the delivery of services that help people meet basic needs of housing, food and energy. The Monkey project in County Durham was set up by a group of housing associations and charities to provide free support to social housing tenants struggling with the cost of living due to falling wages and benefit cuts. The project can provide one-to-one advice, affordable new and good-quality reused furniture, discounts on new carpets and low-cost home contents insurance.


Challenging by speaking out against austerity.
Local authorities, charities, campaigners and activists have used research and evidence to show the negative effects of austerity on people’s lives. Others have developed campaigns that challenge landlords and payday lenders on business practices that capitalise on the desperate conditions of low income families, and have challenged government policies that advance austerity. Psychologists Against Austerity are an example of a new group, formed of community psychologists who are speaking out about the impact of austerity on mental health, using psychological and evidence-based research. Focus E15 Mothers are another example of a strong and articulate challenge to austerity. They challenged the local effects of austerity in Newham and the narrative that young, low income mothers do not have a right to affordable housing within London.


Imagining by becoming advocates of alternatives and wider structural change.
A handful of groups are looking beyond present circumstances to envisage ways of organising politics, the economy and public services beyond the current era of austerity. This involves a mixture of theory and practice on ideas such as ‘guerilla’ local economic development, investing rather than cutting, and developing services that are able to prevent problems before they occur, rather than curing them at a late stage. Examples include groups such as the Early Action Task Force which have developed a series of recommendations for hardwiring prevention into public budgets, and Preston City Council which is working closely with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) to spearhead new approaches to community wealth building through employee ownership.


Future possibilities


Austerity remains, for now, at the heart of the mainstream policy agenda. If cuts continue beyond this year’s election, local authorities’ budgets will be stretched to breaking point. The case against austerity and need for alternatives can only grow clearer.