Community wealth building is fast becoming the UK’s next paradigm of local economic development. Councils across the country are adopting community wealth building (CWB) strategies in a competitive race to keep up with the latest trend – a remarkable turnaround from the neoliberal status quo.
Its principal agent of change, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) ‘think and do’ tank has grown considerably over the past few years to meet the rising demand for its consultancy services in developing CWB in diverse localities, from Islington to the Wirral. Many local authorities now have their very own dedicated CWB officer or director tasked with localising and democratising wealth.
CLES’s outgoing Chief Exec, Neil McInroy, has been seconded to the Scottish Government to embed CWB thinking in state policy. The first ever ministership with CWB in their portfolio – the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth – was appointed by the Scottish Government in May 2021.
That same month, in the local elections, much has been made in the media of how CWB-supporting councils and mayors bucked the national trend. Despite the dismal downward trajectory for Labour, losing more of its so-called heartlands in the Red Wall to Tory insurgents, Labour held onto all ten of its seats in Preston – an impressive result attributed to CWB’s prototypical programme, the Preston model – while ‘sensible socialist’ Mayor of Salford, Paul Dennett, increased his vote share to 59%.
May also saw the publication of Paint Your Town Red – the long-awaited ‘inside story’ of the Preston model, co-authored by Matthew Brown, the Leader of Preston City Council. This boosterist book, written to convince others to follow Preston’s lead, joins a host of outputs aiming to put a radical spin on this particular brand of cwb, to paint the movement as a definitively democratic socialist project.
Indicative amongst these outputs is a CLES publication New Municipalism in London which holds up the Preston model, alongside Barcelona en Comú and Cooperation Jackson, as an exemplar of the so-called ‘new municipalism’. This is a growing global movement aimed at radical transformation of cities through – as Cooperation Jackson’s slogan puts it – “the democratisation of society and the socialisation of production”.
Where the Preston Model is an example of managed municipalism – managed by policymakers – Cooperation Jackson exemplifies an autonomist municipalism of building politically and economically autonomous spaces through community initiative and popular mobilisation. Whereas the former works to reform the local state from within, the latter aims to transform the representative liberal political institutions of parties and parliaments into directly- democratic people’s assemblies – to create an alternative polity of regionally confederated self-governing communes to supersede the nation-state. It’s through replacing capitalist relations of production with co-operative and commons based practices founded on deep economic democracy and collective ownership, that these fundamental institutional transformations really paint the town red.
This article explores CWB’s different ideological origins as it has developed in Britain and evaluates the Preston model’s claims to radicalism. It argues that the missing link is a cooperative development programme grounded in community anchors to complement its anchor institutional strategy. Lastly, it engages with Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space and looks to the history of municipalism and cooperativism, to the Paris Commune and Emilia-Romagna, for understanding how radical spaces of popular education, collective decision-making and social encounter are fundamental.
For everyday life to be radically transformed in cities such as Preston, energies need refocusing on the spaces in which life is lived and not just the spaces in which policy is conceived.
British CWB has developed not so much through community-led action – as the name suggests – as through the confluence of ideas and agendas of elected politicians and progressive technocrats. Foremost amongst them is of course CLES – an agency founded with tombstone funding in the dying days of the Labour-led Greater London Council, in the late 1980s, explicitly in order to continue the radical municipal-socialist industrial strategy of the metropolitan borough councils following their abolishment by Thatcher. CLES’s foundational role in the Preston model represents these municipal-socialist seeds finally bearing fruit.
CLES’s work through the 1990s and 2000s, however, focused on local spend circulation, specifically the power of public procurement to retain and generate wealth locally. This was informed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF)’s policy tool ‘LM3’ for measuring the economic impact of successive rounds of local spending with the aim of Plugging the Leaks (as a formative NEF report was titled) in ‘leaky’ local economies, moving from extraction to retention and multiplication of wealth.
In 2006, the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) – formerly the Association of Direct Labour Organisations – commissioned CLES to do a study of the multiplier effects of procurement and employment spend in Swindon. Such LM3-based work was developed further for Greater Manchester before becoming the basis for progressive procurement policies in the Preston model and wider CWB movement.
The origins of British CWB in this local spend-oriented strand is reflected, perhaps, in the movement very nearly getting branded local wealth building. Another explanation is that ‘local’ would appeal more to local authorities, cles’s principal market. That community – not local – eventually stuck is perhaps testament to the influence of the Democracy Collaborative, the American think tank that originally coined the concept in 2005 and became involved in the Preston Model through a chance encounter with Matthew Brown at a conference organised by CLES in London in 2011.
The Democracy Collaborative called it community wealth building to a resurgence in grassroots experimentation with forms of community and cooperative ownership right across the US and across the ‘three pillars’ of the economy – land (such as community land trusts); labour (worker-owned co-ops); and capital (community banks).
In terms of land, they saw gaining ground hundreds of community land trusts and limited-equity housing co-operatives; in the domain of labour, worker-owned co-ops, employee stock ownership plans and community development corporations; and for capital, community development financial instruments and community banks… And these have only gained more momentum since the 2008 global financial crisis.
CWB was thus developed as the overarching strategy for connecting together these otherwise disparate and isolated community-led experiments in order to create an integrated system of democratic economic institutions that could, with the right political support, develop into an alternative to state bureaucracy and corporate capitalism. This was a full system approach aimed at joining up community ownership institutions across scales.
It was the promise of finding that political support in what CWB advocates Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill called the British Labour Party’s ‘institutional turn’ under Corbyn and McDonnell that brought the Democracy Collaborative to the UK. The opportunity to potentially realise CWB’s full system approach was finally provided by the strengthening democratic-socialist counter-forces in the Labour Party – both nationally and locally in places like Preston.
Progressive procurement – the main feature of CWB in the UK – was only ever conceived as a supportive strategy. In the Democracy Collaborative’s flagship project, the Cleveland model, where the anchor institutional strategy was first formulated, the focus is still on developing the network of Evergreen worker-owned cooperatives, specialising in solar energy, laundry, and food growing, rather than on procurement from the ‘eds and the meds’ per se.
But the Preston model put the CWB cart before the horse. While Preston has not simply imitated the Cleveland model – also taking inspiration from Emilia-Romagna and the Mondragon networks of worker-owned co-ops – energies have so far mostly been directed towards the institutional procurement powers of participating anchor institutions, rather than the communities’ power of using democratic business to empower local residents.
Matthew Brown and his allies are no doubt driven by strong ideological commitments to cooperative ownership and economic democracy. Preston’s commitment to potentially develop worker-owned co-ops rather than, say, social enterprises, charities, or family-owned businesses to take on anchor institutional contracts is something that Brown pushed for from the outset, often against the intuitions of other partners.
As a result, the city has been labelled “Jeremy Corbyn’s model town” and a “laboratory of Corbynomics” by The Economist, and CWB was indeed picked by the former Labour Leader, with a CWB Unit established in his office; a policy move that was first announced by John McDonnell in – of all places – Preston.
Yet its advocates have since done their best to distance the Preston model from associations with democratic-socialist Corbynism or McDonnellism in order to secure a politically diverse local coalition of participating anchor institutions, including a Conservative-run Lancashire County Council. This leads to contradictions. Matthew Brown frequently begins his podcast interviews with the refrain that the Preston model is “just extreme common sense really”. This tactically depoliticises the model as an uncontentious, commonsensical approach to localist investment in good jobs and services via public and anchor institutional procurement. It downplays its co-operative credentials in socialising the means of production, in building an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. In this dilution of radical ambition within palatable populism, the model doesn’t so much paint the town red as paint the town beige.
In a cultural context in which working class practices of co-operation and structures of solidarity have been all but whittled away by a pernicious neoliberal project now half a century in the making, co-operative development is an incredibly challenging and painstaking process. And yet it has only belatedly been undertaken in Preston, many years after the procurement strategy was formulated.
Since then, modest progress has been made with co-ops. The Preston Cooperative Development Network (PCDN) has been established by key players in the City Council and University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) to coordinate and stimulate cooperative development, along the lines of the Evergreen and Mondragón federation model of interconnected co-ops reinvesting surpluses into an overarching community-owned trust and co-op development bank. Local partners have also secured funding from the Open Society Foundation for the incubation of ten worker-owned co-ops. Yet co-operative education and business support has largely been focused on UCLAN’s student and graduate cohorts, with patchy uptake and no real conception of how to address pervasive economic inequalities or how to widen access to a broader social base.
It’s only in the last year or so that Preston City Council have turned their attention to the ‘community’ side of the equation, bringing in Co-ops UK and Stir to Action to begin a patient process of awareness raising, popular education, capacity building, and cultural change. Stir to Action have been contracted specifically to support Black and marginalised communities traditionally excluded from the local labour market, but the local co-operative economy is so immature that they are years from being ‘contract ready’ for any opportunities arising through progressive procurement.
In their programme findings report, published in January 2021, Stir to Action challenge the Preston model and CWB more broadly for focusing on technical policy changes such as procurement to the neglect of “democratic business skills, culture, and infrastructure”; for assuming that creating the passive demand for co-ops would somehow automatically stimulate supply. The report recommends more sustained investment in the early-stage ‘pipeline’ for co-ops and in ‘pre-technical’ support in cultural awareness and education, through a ‘community anchor’ approach delivered by local charities, not established national providers or institutional bodies.
Indeed, one of the missing pieces in the puzzle of the Preston model is the overlooked though vital role for community anchor organisations. Just as anchor institutions (like universities and housing associations) can become mainstays of city-regional economies, acting to generate social value and circulate wealth at scale, their capacity and ability to channel resources more locally to the communities that need this most hinges on the presence of more local anchors at the neighbourhood level, providing the crucial link between policy aims and practical action.
Community anchors may take the form of neighbourhood associations, community land trusts or development trusts – registered as community benefit societies, for instance – acting as hubs for their communities in a myriad of ways: as stewards of key community assets; as arenas of local decision-making and neighbourhood planning; as hubs for incubating start-up co-operatives and social enterprises; as consortia for funneling grant and procurement funding to community businesses outside of institutional influence; and as spaces for encounter and assembly, education and celebration.
Inspiration can be found beyond Preston, in places such as Plymouth. Here, without the CWB policy brand, the city council has been establishing co-operatively-owned community anchors. Plymouth Energy Community was founded with council staff and seed funding as a community benefit society providing renewable solar energy across the city and is now working with other community anchors to develop a large community land trust for zero carbon affordable housing.
In Middleton, in the Greater Manchester Borough of Rochdale – the historic home of the Rochdale Pioneers – a grassroots CWB movement is emerging. Middleton Co-operating, a recently-established community benefit society, is a catalyst for co-operative development and hub for coordinating urban governance and regeneration amongst its many members, including local residents, charities, social enterprises, co-ops and also anchor institutions, which have been invited into a process initiated by co-operators rather than councillors. This is CWB from the ground up.
For everyday life to be radically transformed in cities such as Preston, energies need refocusing on the spaces in which life is lived and not just the spaces in which policy is conceived. In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre described the increasingly urban space in which we live out our lives as constituted by what he called ‘spatial practices’ or ‘perceived space’ – that is, the perceptible routines and rhythms, the spatial movements and flows (including transport and spending circulations) that give physical structure and material body to urban everyday life. Perceived space, as Lefebvre saw it – in his distinctively expansive, relational way – is produced through the interplay of two other kinds of space.
The first is lived space – a subliminal space of rituals, memories, dreams, desires, affective connections, and pre-verbal experiences that richly infuse space with meaning and latency. Here we find uncanny intuition, superstition, irrationality, pathology, drama, play, music and dance, festivity, collective joy and the carnivalesque. This is the realm of the Beach Beneath the Street – the playful subversion of conventional urban-capitalist patterns of productivity – commuting, working, consuming – that became a mantra for the revolutionary ferment of May 1968; and which has since become associated with Guy Debord and the Situationist International, for whom Lefebvre’s thought was a major touchstone.
The second aspect is conceived space. This is the space of rationality, logic, abstraction and representation; of plans, visions, models and theories; of architects, planners, experts and technocrats. Conceived space is crucial for understanding and rationalising – and reforming – space. But if it gains excessive power, conceived space risks dominating lived space to create an alienating, abstract kind of space devoid of meaning or subjective attachment. If the powerful forces enabling capitalist extraction and technocratic domination are left to sweep through society unchecked, to transform space in their own image, then great violence will be done to everyday life in what Lefebvre called “the devastating conquest of the lived by the conceived”.
For community wealth building to change everyday life under capitalist urbanisation – to contest processes of extraction, abstraction and alienation – it really needs to embed abstract conceptions and models of policy reform within the lived experience of citizens and communities. The Preston model is just that – an abstract model floating in the realm of conceived space and mobilised across borders by experts and consultants through a dynamic process of fast policy transfer, evolving through translation between spatial contexts. Its policy prescriptions and theories of change construct adaptive blueprints of how urban political economies could be designed differently by elected representatives, to better meet the needs and desires of their constituents. But as an inducement to broader collective action – beyond the expertocracy – its conceptual contours need grounding in the landscape of lived space.
Any cultural change – if it is to endure – needs to be grounded in actual, physical spaces. “To change life”, wrote Lefebvre, “we must first change space”. He meant it in both a social and material sense. The cultivation of co-operative practices needs rich soil and walled gardens, protected from the cold winds and storms of global capitalism, as well as dedicated cultivators and conducive climatic conditions.
In the world’s three largest and most successful cooperative economies – Emilia-Romagna, the Basque Country, and Quebec; regions on which Preston is explicitly modelled – the emergence and endurance of federated worker-owned co-operatives was only made possible by the cultivation of co-operative practices rooted in collectively governed spaces – spaces largely autonomous from the state and capital.
In Radical Space (2003), Margaret Kohn traces one important source of municipalism back to late 19th-century Emilia-Romagna. In the towns and communes in and around Bologna, working class movements for co-operative and mutual alternatives emerged to contest industrial capitalism and bourgeois rule and did so through the appropriation or construction of material spaces for popular encounter, assembly, and organisation.
What were known as houses of the people and chambers of labour became home to offices and workshops for budding co-operatives, guilds, trade unions, and mutual aid societies but also hosted more social and political spaces – including lecture halls, theatres, assembly rooms, libraries, bars and cafes – used by the community for communal encounter, democratic decision-making, political mobilisation, popular education, entertainment and festivity.
Such spaces were essential for the flourishing of the spatial practices of co-operativism and municipalism, through the infusion of both conceived and lived space. The early development of material and cultural infrastructure no doubt underpins the great success of the co-operative movement in Emilia-Romagna today.
The singular inspiration for the houses of the people – and for all anarchist and democratic-socialist movements since, not least the Situationist International and, most recently, the new municipalism – was the Paris Commune of 1871. In Communal Luxury, Kristin Ross shows how the communist culture of the Commune was fermented in the countless “revolutionary clubs”, the reunions, associations, salons, and committees that sprung up across Paris in the preceding years.
These clubs were “buzzing hives” of subversive political activity verging on a “quasi-Brechtian merging of pedagogy and entertainment”; they were “schools of the people” (and “schools of disturbance and depravity”) in which labourers, artisans, artists and intellectuals encountered each other and also radical new ideas, learning how to co-operate and strategise together. This was painting the town red – in every sense of the term.
What followed in April 1871, when the people took Paris, were 72 days of autonomous, communist self-government in which urban life was organised not by the capitalist logic of the market or by imperial rule but democratically, according to the needs and desires of the people. Through federated assemblies and cooperatives, the Communards produced a lived space of ‘communal luxury’ over competitive scarcity.
Communal luxury was institutionalised partly through a pioneering programme of universal education in the founding of crèches and schools in which specialisation was shunned for a more holistic, artistic, humanist pedagogy. These were crucial sites of learning for the formation of new, democratic subjectivities versed in the skills and values of self-government, socially-useful industrial design and co-operative production.
For a brief moment in history, the Communards demonstrated through spatial practices what the conception of the commune – that is, an autonomous, co-operative, post-capitalist form of life ruled by neither the state nor the market – might look like in lived, affective, and material terms. And this made a deep impression on how Marx conceived of communism and how Murray Bookchin conceptualised ‘communalism’ – the theory of confederated communes motivating many new municipalist movements today.
From the Paris Commune’s schools of the people to Emilia-Romagna’s houses of the people, it’s clear that communal spaces of encounter, assembly, and organisation really matter for generating radical movements for local economic transformation – including community wealth building.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare the Preston model against the Paris Commune. The revolutionary cultural conditions that sparked the latter clearly don’t pertain in Preston or, for that matter, anywhere in the UK today. When these conditions are absent, revolutionary action has to begin elsewhere, using available methods to hand.
The Preston model is an admirable and exciting experiment in whether technocratic tools can cultivate co-operative practices to instil an ‘urban revolution’ – as Lefebvre described the radical democratic appropriation of everyday life. But for the full system ‘institutional strategy’ of community wealth building to be realised, it now needs to invest in its own schools and houses of the people, starting with community anchors and co-operative hubs.
Matthew Thompson is a research fellow at the University of Liverpool, where he is currently digging into the hidden history of municipalism and co-operative development in Plymouth, Preston, and London.