Interview: Aditya Chakrabortty

Summer 2019 #26
written by
Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Matthew Brazier

Your Alternative Series in the Guardian was a project to see how communities around the UK are taking back control to rebuild their economies, often with no support from the government. Could you define and explore a few examples of what you call ‘guerilla localism’?

Let’s think about the moment we’re in. We’re almost a decade into austerity and the damage it has caused in communities up and down Britain can no longer be hidden or denied. Out in the suburbs of London where I live there are beggars on the streets. Go to small towns and you’ll see homeless populations. And everyone knows those headlines about headteachers sending begging letters home to parents. Some of your readers may have got one. Those are just two examples of how our public realm has been ripped up by austerity. 

One of the things about austerity, is that it is an old, bad, failed idea. George Osbourne and David Cameron took it off the shelf from Margaret Thatcher, and she in turn borrowed it from generations of economists. All of this carnage is being wrought by an idea that is not even second hand, but third or fourth hand. And if you look at the current conservative party leadership contest, you can see there are no new ideas at all. The single biggest policy idea from the Tory leadership is Dominic Raab’s suggestion to cut income tax by 5p. We are now in the fortieth year since Thatcher came to power and we’ve still not moved beyond those ideas. 

So from the point of the journalist, I’m in a situation where there are a wealth of bad news stories, with which the readers of the Guardian, who are very engaged on both paper and online, are sort of familiar. There is also a general sense of fatigue – while our readers want to hear these stories, they are also interested in what can be done about them. 

Personally, I wanted to hear how things are going differently. So housing, food and schools, how to get house building done, care, and wages. These are the basics of our lives. 

I put two additional things in my remit for this series. I was interested in the aspects of the everyday economy. Unfortunately, people still perceive economics as a concern of the more abstract spheres of our lives. It’s not about what happens when you wake up, feed the kids, leave them at the school gate, and then worry about work and getting to work. So dealing with communities who have seen their entire bus service decimated, that’s an aspect of everyday economics.

We’ve talked about the Conservative Party, so for the sake of even handedness, let’s think about the Labour Party. Their big plans for the economy are largely about having more space for the public sector, driving out the private sector from certain parts of the economy, such as water and energy. I have no problem thinking about how to restructure utility ownership, but we still have a basic issue where our kids may go to school and at lunch eat utter crap, put together for pennies. And yet when you think about how fundamental food is to our economy, from inequality to the quality of food you can afford, to changes we can make in local supply chains, to procurement, this seems like a much more obvious place to start when you’re thinking about everyday economics. 

The second part of my remit was about local economic experiments. In my view, for most of our working lives, Westminster has not been a place for genuine, speculative thinking. It’s not been where new ideas have been tried out. But after nearly ten years of cuts, and forty years of sharp deindustrialisation, we now have communities that are trying different things because they have no other option. What they thought was their bread and butter has been taken from them, what they thought was their guaranteed income stream has gone, and so now they have to participate. 

So I was looking for genuine alternatives, in time where they don’t seem to be obvious. The idea of calling it the Alternative series, was a two-fingered salute to the people who tell you There Is No Alternative. My interest in exploring local economic experiments, was in seeing how people try things out for themselves and work out why it goes right and why it goes wrong. 

The stuff that I thought was really interesting in this series, falls into a number of different strands, but I’ll pick out a couple. There is an aspect in the series about being more imaginative about what the public sector offers. It’s not enough for the public sector to simply own a utility, or dream up the bits that create an iPhone. It’s also about what the public sector can do with their purchasing power, what they can do through being a massive economic agent.

We kicked off the series in Preston, which has been trying a new municipalism – thinking about what the community as seen through the council, can do. It has used its local institutions to keep money local, and is also going to the private sector to invite them to participate in the local economy. This involves certain things that benefit the local economy, such as spending and hiring more locally. Even more interesting still, has been their experiments to get worker co-operatives off the ground. I still think that when people talk about the Preston Model, we are using too calcified a term for a process that is still very much in flux. It is also highly contingent, relying on elections and re-elections, as it should be. So it’s very much more experimental than calling it the Preston Model suggests. 

In that bucket of the public sector trying to create markets, trying to restructure the economy, I’d also put the dinner ladies of Oldham. According to the Office of National Statistics, Oldham is the poorest town in England – yet they have an award-winning school dinner service. Dinner ladies and dinner service are not normally the most highly regarded part of council provision, but there has been an immense amount of imagination that’s gone into thinking about how Oldham’s children deserve the best. If that ‘best’ includes organic food, the dinner service will tell their suppliers they want organic food and at a decent price. That is what is happening in Oldham – they have effectively restructured the regional mass catering market. That is remarkable. What is even more remarkable, is that they did not start with a conversation about using the public sector to transform the local economy. They just said, these children deserve better. So that’s one strand.

The other thing I found that was really important was none of these people identified as economic agents or were treated as such. One of the best examples is Toxteth in Liverpool, where Granby 4 Streets, a Community Land Trust, have taken four streets on the verge of being bulldozed by the authorities. They have not only stopped demolition, they’ve set about building houses, which they determined how they will look, who will rent them, and what their utility will be. They have effectively decommodified the housing market in these four streets. Again, they would not say, we decommodified the housing market, they will say that the area we live in was falling apart, and we made it better. They started using ‘guerrilla localism’, starting with gardening and planting flowers in these abandoned streets to show there is still life there. 

In a similar vein, and in a very different part of the country, in Whitney, which was David Cameron’s constituency, there are – as a direct result of austerity – bus services being shut down. These closures particularly affect those living on housing estates, just beyond the town, such as pensioners with limited mobility. I also met the town council and local residents who had worked to set up a volunteer bus service. The thing about all of these examples, is they happened without any guidelines, without any manuals on how to set up a new bus service. It was a scrabbling together, a crossing of fingers, and hoping for the best.

You also explore the origins and development of the Preston Model, a flagship example of community wealth building in North West England, and you also visit the Bevy Pub, in Moulsecoomb, Brighton. How do you see the tensions and interactions between policy-led and community-led economic development in UK towns and cities?

I think that both approaches have their ups and downs. The problem with bottom-up development is that it can be very intentionally idiosyncratic. If we’re looking at the Bevy Pub in Brighton, it was about saying that we need a pub on the corner of a housing estate as there is not one for miles around. Meanwhile, in Brighton City Centre, the pubs charge London prices and Moulsecoomb residents don’t feel comfortable visiting them. How do you keep life in a community? One way is to create a community institution. In this case, they’ve labelled it a pub, but really it’s a community centre that happens to serve booze. 

That approach has worked brilliantly for the Bevy, though there’s no reason why it should have done. As they’d explain, there were many hairpin bends in their story. And the fundamental problem for someone who doesn’t live in Brighton or Moulsecoomb, is that there is one institution there now and no plans to roll it out anywhere else. The great thing about the Bevy and the people who run it is they want it to serve as an example to other places. They share information, experience, and their expertise. They act as a repository of institutional wisdom, but there’s still no landscape for which 1000 co-operative pubs in working class areas are suddenly springing up. That is not the reality. 

One of the big problems with policy-led economic change, is there remains a tension between an institution like the city council and the community it serves. The two are not the same. A certain type of person wants to become a councillor, a certain type of person becomes a council officer, and one of the clearest things about Preston’s community wealth building approach is how little representation there is for the city’s BME community. The city has a carnival, and you can’t come out of Preston railway station and get into a taxi without the driver almost certainly being of Pakistani origin. There are loads of bme people in Preston and it’s debatable as to how much they’ve been involved so far. I’ve put this to people there and they say they’re trying to do something about it. But that is an example of a tension that we need to get right. Those are the downsides. 

The upsides I think are a bit more obvious. If it’s policy-led, like Preston City Council, they can use their institutional and governmental clout to move more stuff, more quickly. It can also rope in financing, such as approaching George Soros’ foundations and get money out of it more easily than the Bevy in Brighton. The upside for the Bevy is you’re not going to argue with the motives of the people who set it up. They aren’t doing it for profit or political advancement, they’re doing it because they felt there was a genuine need. Despite this, there is still a tension between the institution and the people that work in that pub and the local community. In the case of the Bevy, it’s something they’re very alive to – how do we make it more representative of the people who come here? How can we create a more perfect union between the drinkers, as it were, and the people who use the community centre. 

I think the biggest single problem in both cases is a universal one: quite simply, everyone’s hard up, there is no money, it’s far easier to get money if you’re a phantom ferry service and have an ‘in’ with Chris Grayling, than if you’re trying to set up a Community Land Trust.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh interviewed the Guardian’s Aditya Chakraborrty, for a short reflection on his year-long Alternatives Series. He calls for us to refocus our efforts on the ‘everyday economy’, not just large, national infrastructure projects, or the workplace. It’s communities – like Toxteth and Moulsecoomb – where he sees hope in the actions of people who do not even see themselves as economic actors, even less know what it means to decommodify our housing market.

Summer 2019 #26

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