On a sunny Sunday afternoon recently, I took part in a two hour Zoom meeting – the kind of which has become the norm in the last 12 months! – on the issue of Community Wealth Building. I’ll admit it, at first mention it’s not something that will set many pulses racing. But the reason that those on that call were willing to give up a nice Sunday afternoon is because this is an idea with the potential to reshape how our economy works.
As a Mayor I can’t make laws or set tax rates. But I do spend money and shape the political agenda in South Yorkshire. Community Wealth Building is about using the tools I have at my disposal to deliver for Barnsley and South Yorkshire. That means using local government purchasing power, partnerships, codes of conduct and support for local businesses and co-ops to redirect resources back into our local economy and put power and wealth in the hands of local people. You could call it taking back control.
This agenda has never been more relevant in South Yorkshire. Local leaders and I have created a transformative £860m Renewal Fund to rebuild our regional economy. But we can’t afford to simply rebuild back to the status quo. We’ve got to explore how to back different enterprise models – mainly through direct and indirect support for co-ops and worker ownership. The pandemic has shown that co-ops are more resilient in downturns, less likely to lay off workers, and more likely to keep money in the local area. What’s not to like?
Reforming procurement is at the heart of our effort. Local councils and anchor institutions have the power and influence to set the agenda, for example, by barring bidders that use zero hours contracts, or giving extra weight to bids with lower carbon emissions. We could reward companies that offer more apprenticeship places, employ a local workforce, or pay a decent wage.
I’m a Labour MP and a Labour Mayor because I believe in more than merely managing the economic system; I believe in reshaping it to better serve our people, our places, or economy and our public services. Making not just a bigger economy – but a better, more socially just one too. That’s more than just putting Labour values into action, it’s common sense.
That is also what Community Wealth Building is about. It puts power and wealth in the hands of workers who want more control and a greater stake in their work. It spreads wealth and opportunity more equally and tackles insidious regional inequality. It rewards entrepreneurs who play by the rules and contribute to society, whilst tackling those unscrupulous businesses who are more than happy to exploit their workforce and wider communities. Above all, it tears up the rulebook, making social benefit count for something more than public relations.
I came into politics – and I stood to be South Yorkshire Mayor – because I know that too often the current system doesn’t work for those at the bottom. The families struggling to make ends meet and pay the bills each month. The young workers juggling two and three jobs just to keep their heads above water. I recognise that the system is broken and that the state – at local, regional and national level – has a fundamentally important role in fixing it, rather than just picking up the pieces.