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Economic Justice

Building inclusive community alternatives to the low wage, low value economy

Clare Payne, Economic Justice programme consultant for Barrow Cadbury Trust, charts the programme’s eight-year journey and its future course.

Over the last eight years, our Economic Justice programme has been on a journey. In the early days of working with others to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor, we looked at economic inequality through both ends of the telescope. Macro level research on the characteristics of fairer financial systems sat in a portfolio alongside local work on implementing the Social Value Act in Birmingham. We went wide as well as deep, exploring the ways in which people end up with problem debt, how the demographics of urban poverty are changing, and how local authorities and communities were working creatively to minimise the impacts of austerity. We supported colleagues at Scope, to look at the extra costs experienced by disabled people, the Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust to look at the disproportionate impact of government cuts on women and BAME communities; and Fawcett on how gender had been considered (spoiler alert – hardly at all) within devolution policy.

Looking at our back catalogue for this blog has been immensely rewarding. We were asking the right questions – where does power lie; why do some people fall through the gaps; how do you challenge financial systems wired for risk and short term profit; why is it so hard for those in work to build up savings; who needs the most help; what is our impact? But, we were also asking a lot of questions.

Our relationship with Birmingham and the Black Country has, over the last 100 years, provided local connections and networks through which to listen, test, adapt and respond. When, back in 2016, we were considering how to tighten up and progress the programme, we talked with partners in the city and considered how our local grant-making had reduced poverty in communities and influenced those with power.

Although in its early stages at that time, the Birmingham Poverty Truth Commission, convened by Thrive Together Birmingham, was already building a reputation. A listening model designed to create safe connections between those with lived experience of poverty and/or lack of voice, with those in positions of influence and power in city institutions, was immediately valued both by those sharing experience and those with the sway.

Another project, led by the Birmingham & Solihull Social Economy Consortium (BSSEC), was achieving steady progress in assisting Birmingham City Council to implement the principles of a welcome, but rather nebulous Social Value Act. Commissioning as a tool for social good was picking up momentum in the city. An earlier piece of research delivered by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), sought to measure the resilience of the public, social and commercial sectors in North Walsall, and how the strength of the relationships between these contributed to the resilience of the place. The local authority embraced the findings, using them to strengthen sectors and partnerships and allocate resources more collaboratively.

What could we take away from these three initiatives? Accountability feels different if you shorten the distance. Residents’ voices convey gravitas to policy makers if they are local ones and if those listening have a connection with them through locality. Contractors, however large and often isolated from the geography in which they work, always have a local impact – and it is not always positive. There is social, economic and environmental benefit to be had beyond the bottom line. Places becomes more resilient if services and sectors work together with a shared goal of improving the lives of everyone, and crucially, of listening to everyone.

The principles of thinking and being local, of sharing wealth, of co-design and partnership, and using all your assets for the public good, are ones the Trust has embraced within the Economic Justice programme and where we are seeing real leadership and change in Birmingham and the Black Country.

We were thrilled when CLES and senior leaders at Birmingham City Council established an anchor institution network in the city, now in its fourth year, and when the West Midlands Combined Authority in 2018, announced its commitment to growing the social economy sector. And earlier this year we learned that Birmingham City Council will be setting up its own Birmingham Truth Commission, focusing in its first year on housing. It will use the methodology of the Birmingham Poverty Truth Commission to ensure that the process has integrity and is open, safe and accountable. This is a real testament to the city’s desire to hear and learn from the experiences of all its citizens.

With local authorities and many households now crushed financially by COVID-19, and structural inequalities laid bare for all to see, the adoption of such principles – local partnership, listening and involving all communities, and ensuring that investment and money flows benefit all those in an area will be vital for recovery. The salami slicing of budgets is long gone and public services will need to be resourced and delivered in completely new ways. In the coming years, the Trust will be focusing on supporting the principles and practice of ‘community wealth building’, inclusive economies, sustainable local economies – call it what you will – to flourish and grow.

In the last three months we’ve seen the vital importance of community and of local support networks, and the dire consequences of the low wage, low value “just in time” model of building an economy. Community wealth building and inclusive economic approaches provide a structured alternative to those approaches. By supporting the development and spread of new ideas we can help ensure that together we #buildbackbetter.