If the standard explanations of Brexit or the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are anything to go by, inequality is a big issue now. The corrosive effect of the gap between the rich and poor is being realised, as people across the UK focus on the unequal life chances it creates.
At the same time, the Conservative and Labour party leaders are debating the merits of a free market, with both proposing apparently opposing views of the market. Yet deep down both parties know that economic upheaval is coming and that the current iteration of capitalism needs to be something more inclusive and sustainable.
But what reforms are required to reduce inequality? A subject of debate among economists and politicians, big ideas include regulating business, redistributing wealth and specific approaches like a universal basic income.
Well, here’s a different one, a more practical and people-led idea. One way to tackle inequality is to give people more control over the things that happen in their local area which affect them – jobs, housing, high streets, the provision of local services.
It’s something that is being put into practice across the country already, and one that could make a big difference if it were scaled up. To make this happen we’re working with the independent charitable trust Power to Change on a radical new community economic development programme that will channel £8 million of targeted support into seven areas of England.
Over the next five years, the Empowering Places programme will work closely with established community based organisations in each area. With our fantastic partners, the New Economics Foundation and CLES, we will provide them with the mix of grants, support and practical tools that they need to be catalysts for new networks of community businesses in their areas.
Community businesses – owned and run by local communities themselves – have been bubbling up in neighbourhoods across the country during the last decade. Whether saving local pubs from closure, turning around community assets or giving people control over their housing or work, they are keeping wealth local. Power to Change’s latest analysis estimates there are at least 7,000 community businesses in the UK, a growth of 5% since last year.
What we want to determine in this programme is, if focused support is channelled into an area, will it help catalyse a whole host of community businesses? And crucially, if it does, what impact will it have on increasing living standards, wealth and wellbeing in that locality?
One such area is Devonport and Stonehouse in Plymouth. Over the last year Power to Change has been working with the Real Ideas Organisation (RIO), a social enterprise that aims to encourage the flourishing of micro-enterprises, co-ops and social enterprises in the area. They have taken on buildings, including the once derelict Devonport Guildhall, and transformed them into enterprising spaces that support start-ups and social enterprises, creating jobs and physical regeneration in the area.
Over the next five years RIO will receive support to help deepen this work in the area. The ambition is for community business to become the natural path for many people, supported by start-up and development support, investment opportunities, resources and spaces, networking opportunities, and high levels of skill among local people who are able and confident to set up a wide range of community businesses.
For Lindsey Hall of RIO “Empowering Places is a brilliant, very welcome, innovative approach to long term investment into specific communities to explore the role community business can play in solving entrenched problems people face every day. We have already seen how transformative it can be for individuals to have support to realise ideas they have dreamed about, and for building new networks and ways of working to tackle issues that have festered for years.”
Will it help reduce inequality? We know that where there is a groundswell of co-operative businesses we find a positive effect, with people reporting higher levels of wellbeing. Of course, we need national frameworks to promote a fairer distribution and ownership of resources. But it is possible to act from below as well. This is practical action, a way to fast-track the high level debates about reducing inequality and enable people to just get on and do it themselves.