Neil McInroy has been a major force in the fight for social, ecological and economic justice during his twenty-one years at the Centre for Local Economic Studies (CLES) think tank based in Manchester. His decision to take on a new challenge, taking that fight overseas to a bigger arena, will strike a chord with the many people who have recently embarked on new routes and battles through life due to the upheavals of the Covid pandemic.
His work with CLES on developing, promoting and implementing the community wealth building (CWB) model in local authorities across the UK has raised the prominence of CLES’s work, with the most established CWB initiative in the UK being the Preston model, which has seen extensive press coverage and public debate. This raised profile no doubt helped secure his new position with the prestigious US think tank the Democracy Collaborative, who are keen to utilise Neil’s talents in promoting the CWB model in the States and across the globe.
The CWB concept began to be developed in the UK by CLES, and others, in the mid 2000’s as a way to modify local economies to allow them to become more inclusive, collaborative and democratically controlled by restructuring large local “anchor institutions” to produce more sustainable and equitable outcomes.
Speaking to Neil over Zoom he tells me that the CWB concept actually started out in the US and was brought over to the UK by CLES, working with other groups, so that now “you’ve got dozens of areas taken it forward across the United Kingdom, including the Scottish government itself.”
Promoting the development has become a big part of CLES’s work that Neil says “has been seen as an antidote to the injustices” besieging modern society, and that the CWB movement “is not going away. That movement is going to endure and is growing as we speak.”
The work of CLES in building wealth in communities is an ongoing commitment with a centre of excellence set up to encourage new initiatives and to support established CWB projects, as well as those recently underway such as in Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Hull.
Community wealth building – find out more
The most well-known Community wealth building approach was adopted in Preston and is often referred to as the Preston model. This utilised a range of large influential anchor institutions in Preston which included Preston City Council, University of Central Lancashire, Community Gateway Housing Association and Lancashire Constabulary. Using the principles of progressive procurement, which were pioneered in Manchester, the Preston Model increased the amount of spending with companies which were based in Preston, or had branches in the city, allowing more money to circulate within the local economy rather than being extracted out of it. Manchester also saw efficiency savings of £65 million through following progressive procurement policies.
Progressive procurement is just one of the five pillars of CWB. The other four are:
- Democratic ownership of the economy
- Making financial power work for local places
- Fair employment and just labour markets
- Socially productive use of land and property
To find out more about CWB, check out the Community Wealth Building Centre of Excellence.
Neil McInroy’s Scottish roots
Born and raised in Scotland, Neil’s old stomping grounds are Oban and Skye in the Highlands. The stunning scenery, which he explored mountaineering, may have played some part in him becoming an academic focussing on geography and economics. Neil struggled to come to terms with academic work because he had a more action-based, activist focus, “so academia was becoming awkward. It wasn’t applied enough for me, so that’s why I gave it up. I sought out another place with more action focused work.”
That place was CLES, which he joined in 2000, becoming its chief executive in 2003. CLES describes itself as a “think-do tank” and while they may think up and promote new policy ideas, a large part of its work is helping organisations put them into practice. They don’t just aim to shift the Overton window, they build new frames as well.
While Neil believes they have won battles with their community wealth building work at CLES, and in broadening the debate on possible economic solutions, he is concerned that the bigger struggle for “social, ecological and economic justice” is being lost, and has been on a “downward spiral for a number of decades”. We discussed three major upheavals that are disrupting the social order across the globe: Covid, environmental degradation, and the silicon revolution. In these tumultuous times Neil thinks we need a “fundamental re-say” and a “new settlement” around how global, national and local society is organised, and went on to say:
“We can hope for the big top-down changes. We can hope that the G7, the World Bank, IMF, United Nations and COP27 all get their ducks aligned and start to make those big changes.
“However, fundamentally it’s more about the horizontal power, I feel, and the role that activism plays in that and how that hopefully creates a groundswell of consciousness that can change things, but also affects those vertical powers… of nation states, local governments, international bodies.
“And that’s where we are. It’s a fight, it’s a struggle, and at this point where we’re up to, I think we need to collaborate like mad across progressive movements and we need to experiment like mad and test things and get them to work. And if they work… then go in again and deepen and harden it.”
Shredded social contract
With CLES’s work covering Scotland, Wales and England, Neil’s experience tells him that England has the biggest systemic issues to overcome and is where the biggest changes need to be made to allow transition of people and power between the horizontal layers of society.
“So in 2000 there was still a sense of our social contract. There was a sense of a ladder that if you came at a particular lowly position on the ladder, there was a ladder you could get on to” Neil said, and went on: ”It was a difficult ladder, the rungs were a bit broken, but at least they were there. You felt you could get yourself out of your lot, from where you were brought up, or faced injustices. However, now that ladder’s kind of broken, completely. And if you’re born on the wrong side of the tracks, you’re going to stay there…”
Social mobility was in decline in the UK before Covid-19 struck, according to an opinion poll in January 2020 run by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) which saw more than half the respondents saying the government was not doing enough to help the poorest in society. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, with a survey from the SMC in March 2021 revealing that 56% of public respondents believed that during the pandemic social inequality had increased. This echoed growing evidence the Commission had collected showing the socially disadvantaged had been hit hardest by changes to jobs, living standards, health and schooling, with people in the north of England believing they had been worst affected compared to people in the south.
Social mobility was a key issue in the last general election, which Boris Johnson and the Conservatives leveraged most efficiently with their “levelling up the playing field” rhetoric which struck home with swathes of voters in the north leading to the formation of the “blue wall”.
Rhetoric and policy mismatch
Neil’s experiences at CLES have left him sceptical of political rhetoric whichever side of the divide it comes from, and he says that, running from the seventies to the noughties, we had political rhetoric and policies that tried to achieve the goals promised. The politicians would state an aim to tackle inequality, and announce policies around regional development agencies, and big regeneration activity was implemented: “we had stuff that was starting to match the rhetoric” Neil said:
“I think there’s an increase across many parties to say things like you know ‘we’ve got to level up’, or we are for this or for that, but where’s the substance? Where’s the deep dive? Where’s the actual granular stuff that that is concomitant to the actual rhetoric… There is not enough walking the walk.
“And that is a problem in politics. Generally, it’s easy to say ‘we’re going to address inequality in Greater Manchester were going to level up the country’. The hard work is in the granular. It’s how you actually take that forward. And when you have powerful forces, power and wealth who actually are doing quite well, ‘thank you very much’. They like the rhetoric, but they’re not prepared to change their spots.
“They’re going to keep wealth to themselves, and they’re going to keep power to themselves, and that is the fundamental issue here. Where is the actual granular that attacks, power and wealth?”
Revelations round the “chumocracy” developing in the heart of government during the pandemic, where billions in public funds are being handed out to well connected people and firms in contracts offered often without competitive tendering and with little scrutiny, suggest the government may be JCB bulldozing piles of cash on to one end of the playing field rather than levelling it up. Michael Gove, minister for the Cabinet Office, was this month ruled by the High Court to have broken the law with his decision to award a £560,000 contract to a long time associate of himself and Dominic Cummings.
Big government, but who is it serving?
Our discussion turns to austerity and how that has whittled away at our public services and the ability of the government, both at local and national level, to do its job effectively. That move was ideologically underpinned by the neoliberal narrative that supports a small and less interventionist government. But the Covid pandemic has created a huge shift in the government’s economic strategy, Neil said:
“We now no longer have austerity, we have austerity perhaps in some public services, but we don’t have general austerity, there’s more money getting spent. The problem is who benefits from big government and at the moment large corporates and the powerful and the wealthy benefit from big government.
“The traditional left right debate is like we need ‘big government’ and they see ‘small government’. The right, the neoliberal capitalism, is actually for big government now.
“But they are for big government that serves them, that serves the elite… it goes back to the point about rhetoric ‘we’re spending lots of money’ and thats all very well. But who benefits, where is the money going?
“Is it flooding through the streets of Wythenshawe, or Cheetham Hill? Or is it flowing into the pockets of large corporates and into PO boxes in the Cayman Islands?…
“And that’s the new challenge, and that’s what some in the progressive movement needs to realise, it’s not the old battle between big state, small state. It’s all big state. It’s who benefits from the big state is the next question, and we need to pivot and re-orientate ourselves accordingly.”
The quantitative easing machine has been in overdrive during the pandemic, and has been responsible for a large part of the £355 billion borrowed by the UK government in the April 2020 -21 financial year, in 2019-20 borrowing stood at £49 billion. After denying the magic money tree for so long, the government has taken to vigorously shaking it, and it appears the fruits of our labour that fall from it are being caught by well prepared and pre-warned corporates bearing nets. Greensill Capital’s connections with the former prime minister David Cameron, and his subsequent lobbying of government to change the rules to benefit the corporate, could end up costing the public purse £5 billion.
The global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008 was a huge blow to economies in the global north: in the UK it led to austerity whittling down our already struggling public services, which have not benefited from the latest government largesse. There has been a wider public discourse around economics since the crash. I asked Neil how important he thought economic literacy was to turning society around, he said:
“Massively so… you know we go back to the 1990s, economics was like a weird science that no one really understood. I think because the of the GFC… you’ve got a bigger interest in economics now, but I still think there’s lots of shibboleths and half understood elements, and I think economic literacy and political economy education is fundamentally important.
“Now you see it all the time, like the national economy is [portrayed] like a purse, come about from Thatcher and her handbag, and it’s all ‘money in, money out’ yeah, as if it’s like a household budget.
“Well, it isn’t a household budget. States can borrow. There are unlimited amounts they can borrow, in a sense, it’s just whether they can pay it back or not… And so to spend money, creates stimulus in the economy, which then means you can grow the economy. Which means you can pay that back. You can service that money you’re borrowing.
“That’s very different to a household budget. You’ve got finite elements to household budgets, only so much you can borrow. You can borrow for a mortgage, but It’s limited and it depends what your income is. That’s different with states, a fundamental difference…”
Neil says the household economy fallacy, when applied to the national economy, is one of many “neo-liberal shibboleths that bestride economic stewardship” that need to be addressed. He believes this is very important at a national and local level because of the dominance of handbag economics narratives in government and media content, which informs public opinion and leads to “fear on the doorstep” when politicians try to promote policies that involve large investments.
If you had a magic wand with one charge, what would be the first thing you would change to enable a fairer and sustainable economy? I ask Neil, who makes it clearthat he is not a fan of magic wand questions, but humors me by replying:
“I think the English state is pretty much broken and you’re gonna have to put Humpty back together again, It’s in fragments.
“It needs a fundamental conversation from us all… there needs to be a support for greater economic democracy in our society and that means breaking up the power of the City of London. It means that we need to encourage not just business development. We need to encourage different forms of economic democracy and inclusive ownership…
“We need to have a fundamental reset and that includes both power and constitution, but also fundamental question about how we reorganise our economy, so that it truly works for us?
“The economy is not a natural science, it’s a social science. To reconstruct that economy that truly works for us, and you are not going to do that under the existing way that the state operates, it needs a fairly fundamental constitutional change. So a magic wand would be – a constitutional convention for England, which we’re all part of.”
That convention would operate as a citizens’ assembly, with statutory powers to allow its recommendations to be taken forward by the government, Neil says “I think that would rejuvenate this brilliant country that we live in and English people would revel in that.”
Passing on the reins
When he leaves CLES in July, Neil is passing on the reins to Sarah Longland, who will become the new chief executive. Sarah is currently a director of the IPPR North think tank, who have a similar ethos to CLES, perhaps informed by her previous work with CLES ten years ago. Neil says Sarah has:
“…all the attributes, skills and knowledge required to do this job well. It requires someone who has a breadth of knowledge. It needs somebody who has a skill set where they can engage with people from all different walks of life, in all political parties. It needs somebody who’s got a passion for local economies and addressing social, ecological, and economic injustices.
“Yes, I think she’s got all that, everything required to do the job really well… so I think it’s a fantastic appointment and I couldn’t wish for a better person to take CLES forward.”
Neil says CLES has never been just about the leader, and that “we have got a strong board. We’ve got great staff. You know, it’s very much a collective, and in that sense while she leads CLES it’s very much an organisation that’s collaborative and collective and democratic in that way.”When taking up the position with the Democracy Collaborative, Neil will still be offering support to CLES as a strategic advisor, and continuing his work with the Scottish Government as a community wealth building advisor. He will still be based in Greater Manchester for the next year or so, occasionally travelling to the US, and then he has plans to move back to Scotland. At 55 years of age he may be leaving CLES, but he says he is “not leaving the movement. The movement continues and I’ll still play a role in that as long as my health and age allows.”
We discuss the terrible Trump presidency, which Neil hopes will be “just an aberration in the democratic history of the United States”, and the possibilities for positive change the Biden administration brings. He has mixed feeling about his move, saying:
“Yeah, I feel a little bit like you’re starting your first job again, because whilst I know a bit about America I don’t know much… At my age, I think that is a tonic really to feel like that. I feel like a 20-year-old again, it’s like starting a new job going like ‘what, how the hell does this work?’… Some people say it’s brave, perhaps foolish, but whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.”
With CLES continuing the fight for a fairer economy in the UK, and Neil carrying that battle back to the United States, the possibilities for community wealth building to grow are flourishing. And where the US goes politically, culturally, and economically – the UK tends to follow.
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Featured image: The University of Central Lancashire