The Alternative Economists’ Mary McManus talks ahead of their 26th March Imagine! event ‘We have a wealth problem!’

From 1997 to 2021, I worked on the frontline in a Welfare Rights advice centre. After the banking crash in 2008 and subsequent policy of austerity, I witnessed with dismay as poverty began to rise. An advice centre is a window into a community, the canary in the mine if you will, and like many colleagues in the sector I gave presentations to alert the wider community sector and public about the growing poverty and destitution we were seeing.

In 2017, I heard Paddy Hillyard, QUB Professor Emeritus, give a presentation in which he stated that this was not a poor region before going on to outline examples of our wealth. Until then, I had only heard this region described as being a poor one with a large public sector that we needed to reduce. Then in 2018, I read about how Preston City Council was pursuing a local economic strategy that involved using the wealth of public sector organisations, such as the council itself and universities, to ensure fair wages and support for local businesses by growing local supply chains. This was a lightbulb moment for me; it was the first time that I heard of a solution-focused policy to target inequality that was not only common sense but also totally doable as it did not require any new money just making better use of the money already in a place. That local economic strategy is Community Wealth Building which aims to keep the wealth we have circulating rather than allowing it to leak away. Examples of this wealth are the spend of public sector anchor organisations, local government pensions funds and our deposits in banks and credit unions. Putting measures in place to ensure this money is spent with local businesses and ensuring just some of it is invested locally instead of outside the region has the potential to be transformative.

Preston’s pioneering work on Community Wealth Building has become known as the Preston Model. Their successful outcomes from retaining more wealth locally, which include creating real more real living wage jobs, reducing unemployment and being named the most improved city in the UK in 2018, have inspired many cities and regions to adopt the approach. Since discovering Community Wealth Building my focus has shifted, I no longer give presentations on poverty that leave people hopeless, I now give people hope by talking about the wealth we are blessed with and how it can be better distributed to reduce poverty and inequality. I am heartened to see that our own assembly has appointed a Community Wealth Building Expert Panel with two representatives of the Democracy Collaborative (the US-based Think Tank that coined the term) and local business and academic representatives to create an action plan. However, I also know that we must ensure that action follows any plan as it is not a given. In 2012, Belfast CC commissioned a report called, The Impact of Belfast Anchor Institutions, which should have initiated Community Wealth Building practice here, but nothing happened. Preston CC did not produce a report, they just started doing it and we now have a Preston Model not a Belfast Model.

Please join us on online on Saturday, 26th of March at 11am to discuss the substantial wealth we have in place and how it could be better distributed to create a society that is fairer to people and planet. We are delighted that Cllr Matthew Brown, one of the early pioneers of the Preston Model, current leader of Preston CC and Senior Fellow of the Democracy Collaborative will join us to outline how they have used the wealth in Preston to date and their future plans. Our fellow Alternative Economist, Dr. Bridget Meehan will tell us about the Northern Mutual Bank Campaign, a very concrete way of allowing us to use our wealth here. We look forward to seeing you.

You can register here for We have a Wealth Problem!

Mary McManus is one of the Alternative Economists. She is an independent researcher and advocate for more systemic solutions to create a society that is fairer to both people and planet. She also works on practical ways to make them a reality. @Mary_BMac

We’ll be in touch.