Putting Community First

Together with the state and markets, community is the sometimes-overlooked ‘third pillar’ on which our society rests. Just as we need a strong state and can benefit from efficient markets, these imperatives must be balanced with the interests of the geographic communities that bind us. This is the premise of an important new book by Raghuram Rajan, former IMF Chief Economist.

In Ireland, public policy in recent decades has tended towards letting the market rip. To reduce the resulting stark income inequalities, the state has to do more heavy lifting in terms of redistribution than in any other OECD country. Even then, we only rank towards the middle of the equality league table.

Ironically, perhaps, for a country with such a strong traditional sense of community, local government is an area where we are weak. Ireland has one of the most centralized systems of governance, our local representatives lacking much in the way of real power. Whether it is rural heartlands losing pubs, post offices and people, or pockets of urban disadvantage ravaged by unemployment and drug barons’ turf wars, our communities suffer the consequences, fraying the very fabric of our society.

Nonetheless, many of us still identify most strongly with our proximate community: our neighborhood, our parish, our village or townland. Despite the challenges of modern society, place-based civil society remains vibrant: our sports clubs, tidy towns committees and residents’ associations. This is a sign of hope, and a reminder that we must do better.

Ireland is just about to elect its local government for the next five years and is moving towards its first experiments with directly elected mayors. If this were to be coupled with judicious devolution of executive power and responsibility, it could revolutionize how we are governed at a local level. But, we can go much further in democratizing our local government and local economies.

In 2017, South Dublin County Council ran a pilot participatory budgeting project – ‘€300k – have your say’ – where €300k was made available for local projects. 54 suggestions from the public were whittled down to 17 put to a public vote, with the top 8 vote-winners receiving funding. Among the more popular were a playground in Palmerstown and Christmas Lights for Lucan Village. Not only did the process lead to much-needed improvements to the local area, chosen by local people, but many participants acknowledged that it helped them network in their community. Building on the lessons from this experience, participatory budgeting should be rolled out to other local authorities.

As important as democratizing our local government is democratizing our local economies. Pioneered by Mondragon in the Basque country since the 1950s, in Cleveland, Ohio, in the U.S. since 2008 and, closer to home, in Preston in the North of England since 2011, is the Community Wealth Building model. This tailored approach to place-based economic development brings together committed community stakeholders, building on local roots and plurality of ownership.

The results have been phenomenal. In Preston, for example, six large local public organizations – so-called ‘anchor institutions’ that include local authorities, hospitals and universities – committed to buying local goods and services. Their collective local spend trebled from £38m in 2013 to £111m in 2017, supporting 1,600 jobs in the local economy, even at a time of Tory austerity. The city had by 2015 achieved one of the most impressive reductions in unemployment and deprivation in the UK, and was in 2016 voted the best city in northwest England to live and work. This was achieved through reorienting procurement processes, within the law, to favor local suppliers, particularly social enterprises and cooperatives. It also involved working closely with those local suppliers to ensure they had the necessary capacity. Planned next steps include community banks and municipal energy schemes.

In early 2018, the UK Labour Party launched its own Community Wealth Building unit to work with the Co-operative Party, trade unions and think tanks to promote co-ops and mutuals, particularly in local council areas under its control, as a means of driving local economic empowerment. The UK has also been to the forefront of the Living Wage campaign, where a number of local councils as well as public organizations and private companies have committed to paying their staff and contractors above the statutory minimum wage so that they can actually afford the basic necessities of life. Their Irish counterparts should do the same.

We need to start thinking about local government and community development more than just once every five years when elections come around. And we need to be ambitious for our communities, not just about what they can do for us, but about what we can do for them. Participatory budgeting, community wealth building and paying the local living wage could revolutionize our local government and local economies, but we need leadership and buy-in from citizens, their local representatives, community organizations, and both the public and private sector.

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