With the government’s own economic impact assessments for the West Midlands making grim reading – the worst case scenarios reminiscent of the early 1980s recessions that devastated the social and economic fabric of the region – it is vital that policy makers, institutions and individuals prepare for what is likely to be a disruptive period for the UK economy.
In the de-industrialised areas of the West Midlands, there is a high concentration of leave voters. Economically and politically disempowered, these areas have performed poorly, in orthodox economic development terms, since the 1980s. They have experienced comparatively low levels of private sector and government investment and entrenched social issues linked to poverty. Put simply, the West Midlands hasn’t fared well out of the last 40 years of UK economic policy.
It seems that for the West Midlands, Brexit could be a perfect storm, with:
. a lack of political power to shape national policy to meet its specific needs,
• job losses after opening its markets to intense global competition, leading to.
• lower state investment likely to affect the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
So the most important questions are “what next?” and “Are the changes being planned for us, not by us, really in our interest?”
It seems that two options exist….
More of the same?
Much of the hype around Brexit from government and its main advocates has been around the notion of a ‘Global Britain’, the narrative about this uses snappy messaging like ‘freedom’ ‘something new’ and ‘we will all benefit’. In reality ‘Global Britain’ is simply a rebranding and upscaling of the of current economic model we have followed for 40 years – and the West Midlands hasn’t done particularly well out of it.
Take food as an example of what this ‘Global Britain’ might mean. Early reports about potential ‘free trade’ deals have focused on cheaper food imports from places such as America, New Zealand and Australia. The result of this is that smaller UK farmers and food producers won’t be able to compete and could go bust, coupled with the enormous environmental costs of shipping food and goods long distances. So it appears behind the snappy title, Global Britain will be bad for local producers, but a bonanza for massive corporations, with capital and jobs leaving Britain in return for environmentally unsustainable food products and in some cases lower quality food.
In this scenario it seems more apparent by the day, that a real danger of Brexit will be to open Britain up to a free trade ‘free for all’ that could result in lower food, safety and environmental protections.
Let’s be radical! If any situation called for creative thinking and new solutions, Brexit is it. Another Brexit mantra is ‘Taking back Control’ an amorphous phrase that in practice will most likely entail a further concentration of power in one place, Westminster.
Even with the devolution deal secured by the West Midlands, economic policy is generally created for the benefit of one part of the UK economy – London and the Southeast – and if this trend continues it will probably lead to further divergence between London and the rest of the UK, without the power to set policy that works locally.
So how about a radical redistribution of economic and political power, not only devolved to regional but right down to the communities we all live in?
Getting Local; Community Economic Development
Imagine a new style of economy that values people and creates a resilient and sustainable West Midlands. An economic model where local people lead and participate as owners, investors, purchasers and wealth creators. Far-fetched? Not really. Community Economic Development (CED) exists in practice in communities across the world, from hyper local food networks, energy co-operatives, complementary currencies and larger private, trade union & public-sector partnerships that grow localised economic activity for the benefit of communities.
Evidence proves this approach is a better way to grow jobs, harnessing the assets of local communities, rather than relying on distant private and public-sector owners with little understanding of the local areas. LWM’s research has found that higher levels of small and micro businesses and local ownership lead to higher levels of economic success, job creation, social inclusion, civic engagement, wellbeing and local distinctiveness.
So maybe the right question should be ‘How do we make an economy that works for everyone, in which we all have a meaningful stake?’
We could spend another 40 years following the current economic model, sending profits into the offshore accounts of multinationals, damaging our environment and generally carrying on regardless, or we could spend the next 40 years working together to ensure the West Midlands is at the forefront of a new social and economic revolution.
Anything else is simply unsustainable . . .
Visit Localising Prosperity, a LWM programme funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, to read about activity based on making the most of local enterprise, existing business supply chains, networks, community assets and human potential.
David Viney is Administration & Communications Officer for LWM. His professional interests include asset-based community development, regional economic disparity and how discrimination impacts on minority health outcomes.