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Creating a sustainable future at the grass roots

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All local economies are facing instability in three systems on which we depend: in the financial markets, in energy supply and prices, and in ecosystem services. And we can already see local problems caused by instability in these systems: just look at the boarded windows on a typical high street, rapidly rising domestic energy prices, or the way that more homes are becoming uninsurable due to flood risk.

Worse, whatever the causes of the recent riots in urban England, they are a sure sign that there are many who feel detached from their local economy. Worse still, all these systems are now subject to major shocks, whether this is financial meltdown from a European country defaulting on its loans, massive jumps in food prices or cuts in oil supply.

There are concrete ways of getting to the understanding that your locality is vulnerable. Maybe through ecological footprinting of the area and starting to understand ‘one planet’ principles (like Sutton LBC); through commissioning a consumption-based carbon footprint, revealing that the true scale of the carbon challenge is more than twice what NI186 has had us believe (like West Sussex CC); or through a networked approach to place planning (like CLES’s work on local resilience).

When leaders realise that their local economy is not fit for purpose, what do we do? First, recognise where we need to go. We often hear leaders talking about the opportunities of a ‘low carbon economy’, but there is much more to this concept than benefitting from ‘green growth’ by providing goods and services related to energy provision and efficiency. The local economy that evolves will need to be:

  • resilient to shocks linked to food supply
  • resilient on energy
  • using much lower-carbon supply chains for everything
  • able to maintain its natural and social capital

If we don’t choose to be laissez faire, what can local government do to create the conditions for this new, sustainable economy to thrive?

Recognise that place is important

The “little platoons” approach to localism and big society will not suffice here. I believe that there is a vital role for leadership of place (place shaping, place stewardship, call it what you will) that is often absent from Big Society narratives and which is best carried out by a strategic body with a mandate: the local authority. As NLGN has suggested, some places are better equipped than others for the ‘Big Society’, so some intervention is needed. But this has to be about supporting communities, not top-down approaches which stifle innovation.

Grow our economic capacity

Relatively few economists work for local government; still fewer who are engaged with the ‘new economics’ and want to develop policies that let diverse, local enterprise flourish and resource loops become closed. In the future, for example, how can we encourage funding through a new local lending infrastructure? There is a range of models being used and proposed by the likes of NESTA.

Evolve our approaches to local leadership

More than ever, local authority leadership has to allow others in the community the space to lead. To do this, we need to excel at recognising civic entrepreneurship, and nurturing it. And enable the networks that are most likely to bring innovations to scale, so that every place might benefit from innovation elsewhere.

A sophisticated approach to behaviour change

More resilient, successful places can only be created with significant lifestyle changes, but we know that, in recent years, attempts to persuade people towards lower-impact lifestyles have had limited success; increasingly, we are learning to make sustainable living aspirational and in tune with people’s values.

Different metrics

We will have to measure our wealth in a much more rounded way than GDP and GVA do at present. One benefit of new ways of understanding success is that it will make sense for local assets to be used to their full potential.

Whatever we call it, the signs are that the new economy, the Civic Economy, the Big Society, is emerging, with massive energy, with diverse leadership and funding mechanisms and with a strong sense of place. Though these disrupt business as usual, they point to a high-wellbeing, resilient future with high social capital; this is unequivocally an opportunity agenda.

If we can work our way through the challenges, we will find that the local initiatives like these become mainstream. Delivering them is not our job in local government; creating the fertile ground for them to grow and thrive, is.

Warren Hatter is a local improvement advisor specialising in climate change, behaviour change and local leadership.

Two recent reports make it clear there are already plenty of initiatives to inspire and councils are involved in many of them. Among the many initiatives highlighted in NESTA’s Compendium for the Civic Economy and NLGN’s Realising Community Wealth are:

  • Fintry community energy partnership, producing profits from sustainable energy for a whole community
  • Nottingham University Hospitals’ sustainable food procurement, promoting local entrepreneurs and growers while improving value for the NHS
  • Sutton Bookshare, a virtual library where members lend books to each other
  • Time Banks network in Islington, enabling people to share skills
  • Southwark Circle, a co-designed membership scheme for older residents
  • Surrey Museums’ provision by volunteers
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