Where Next on Community Wealth Building? Trade Unions and Political Leaders Gather in Preston to Talk Strategy


“Community Wealth Building has been referred to as ‘guerrilla localism’, and this is not a bad description. It captures the dynamism of the idea and suggests the power of activism to achieve change.”

Mick McKeown

by Mick McKeown

Ten years on since the ‘Preston Model’ of Community Wealth Building (CWB) first got started in the shadow of austerity, shrinking budgets, and the collapse of inward investment in the wake of the Great Financial Crisis, a group of trade unionists and political leaders will be gathering in Preston to chart the course for the future of local economic system change in Britain.

Co-organised by the Communication Workers Union and The Democracy Collaborative, the U.S. think-do tank that first initiated Community Wealth Building in the mid-2000s, the conference has been planned as a day of celebration, deliberation, and radical imagination about Community Wealth Building (CWB) and its place in labour movement strategy.

The event brings together local, regional and national politicians, trade unionists and community activists to reflect upon examples of successful Community Wealth Building and think through the potential for transformative new applications of the approach in the face of the cost-of-living crisis, climate change, and widening inequality. With an emphasis upon talk that leads to action, the intention is to raise morale and ambition and push participants to further commit to future collaborative actions to bring about real progressive change in making local economies fairer for all.

Having first emerged in Preston in response to economic crisis and austerity, the Community Wealth Building agenda and its proponents now find ourselves entering an even worse economic situation, marked by geo-political instability, inflation, increasing inequality, another round of savage budget cuts, and the looming threat of climate change, all accompanied by a growing crisis of democratic legitimacy. For us, this makes an even stronger case for efforts to establish more resilient and egalitarian local economies in the marked absence of progressive national initiatives and policy.

Community Wealth Building has been referred to as ‘guerrilla localism’, and this is not a bad description. It captures the dynamism of the idea and suggests the power of activism to achieve change. Much has been written about CWB, but in a nutshell it involves a number of local economic measures including plural ownership, harnessing and utilising democratised financial power, fairer employment and labour market practices, the deliberate use of progressive procurement approaches, and socially productive use of publicly controlled land and property.

Inspired by earlier approaches in places like Cleveland in the United States and—notably—Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain, the principles of CWB have been informed by practitioner organisations such as The Democracy Collaborative and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. Aspects of the idea have been applied with varying degrees of power and impact in a number of places across Britain, like North Ayrshire and other parts of Scotland, South Wales, Islington and Haringey, Plymouth and Oxford, for example. Such developments are a clear reaction to the abject failure of previous private sector or top-down regional economic regeneration initiatives to positively impact economic fortunes, especially in the North of England and amongst smaller municipalities.

The best-known example is Preston, where under the leadership of Matthew Brown the City Council have engineered a successful across-the-board approach to CWB led by procurement practices and living wage commitments amongst local anchor institutions. In its next phase, the Preston Model aspires to deepen citizen participation and democracy at different social levels, including the creation of worker cooperatives to fill gaps in the local economy.

Positive impacts include successful expansion of wealth circulating in the local economy, increasing numbers of workers receiving a real living wage, reductions in indices of poverty, and corollary enhancements of wellbeing, increased social value in contracting, cooperation among anchors, and improving the public image of Preston as a decent place to live. There is also for us a valuable connection made for people between pride in place and local efforts towards change. Local activists have also welcomed opportunities to develop solidarity relationships with their peers in the United States and Mondragon.

Despite these successes and associated evangelism for the idea to be extended into other places, dissemination has arguably been slow. Similarly, despite trade unions being well placed to support and having an obvious interest in the outcomes of CWB, there has on the whole been some barriers and inertia with regard to trade union engagement. That said, a number of key unions have been prominent in their interest and support. These include notable allies such as BFAWU and CWU at home and U.S. trade unions such as SEIU and others allied to 1Worker1Vote. The planned event aims to strengthen this solidarity and grow more interest and involvement amongst unions, their members, and local community activists.

We strongly believe that unions should be at the heart of organising around CWB, and that there is a huge potential for mutual benefits across wider programmes of union organising and renewal. Ultimately, the union movements’ goals for membership growth and improved density are likely to be well served by activism that also aims to be in charge of local economic justice. Furthermore, the explicit objective to deepen people’s voice and democratic participation at various social levels, including in the workplace, is absolutely the goal of all union organising.   

When we attempt to build organising strength within unions we are ultimately concerned with democratic worker control. The favouring of worker cooperatives with the CWB approach is one means by which these union objectives can be achieved. Forming a cooperative ecosystem across communities which more thoroughly ties union activism to community activism to cooperative workplaces, and worker and community education facilities, goes further in establishing frameworks for solidarity and mutual support. Such ends are not yet fully formed, even in Preston, and need the enthusiastic input of trade unions to be realised more completely.

At a time when the most relevant slogan for the majority of citizens is rightly ‘Enough is Enough’, we have not had nearly enough of Community Wealth Building. The time is right to take these ideas forward to build local economies for the benefit of the many not the few.

  • Community Wealth Building and creating a democratic economy for all takes place in Preston on Saturday November 26. Register here
Featured image: The TUC Demand Better demo on June 18th. Photo credit: the TUC (twitter)

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