Driving community wealth and green jobs in Lewes

15 December 2020

Green New Deals aren’t just for cash-flushed central Governments. In the last year, Lewes DC in East Sussex has been growing its own distinctive variety of green economic strategy.

With a population of around 100,000, the district of Lewes offers something of a microcosm of economic divergence in the UK today.

While the county town of Lewes and much of the countryside is prosperous, pockets of considerable deprivation exist in the coastal towns of Newhaven, Peacehaven and Seaford, as well as in some rural areas. The climate crisis is not a distant after-thought in Lewes and its surrounds, but an all-too present reality, manifested in flooding and coastal erosion.

If its economic geography makes Lewes a kind of UK in miniature, its political landscape offers a striking contrast to the two-party drama of Westminster, run by an alliance of Green, Lib Dem, Labour and Independent councillors. In power since July 2019, this joint administration inherited the results of the harshest years of austerity. Assets were underdeveloped, and only 30 council homes were built in four years.

However, the administration also inherited a skilled team of officers who had started to experiment boldly with insourcing as a means of cutting costs and improving services.

Determined to address the economic injustice on their doorstep, while also tackling the existential threat of climate change, the leaders of the new administration quickly became interested in the potential of community wealth building approaches.

Community wealth building is associated with attempts to reorganise local economies through strategic and co-ordinated use of the various levers and assets that councils have at their disposal. These range from procurement spend and business support functions to the council’s practices as an employer and financial stakeholder.

Building community wealth was one of three major focus areas for the council’s new corporate plan, produced in early 2020.

In April, following an initial phase of exploration and experimentation, the council began working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), in order to gain a deeper understanding of community wealth building approaches and to identify how they might be deepened and embedded in the district. Since then, the council has been exploring the potential of a wide range of approaches.

To date, the area which has received the most attention has been the council’s capital programme, and specifically their role as a provider and improver of eco-friendly social housing.

Central to this has been the exciting realisation that supply chain co-ordination offers a means to bring opportunities for good ‘green jobs’ to those most likely to be excluded from decent work. In doing so, it offers a localised but highly tangible promise of ‘just transition’ – a shift away from jobs based on planet-destroying activities and towards more environmentally sustainable ones, without undermining the quality of life or dignity of large parts of the population.

One of the most developed strands of activity so far has been a distinctive approach to building new council homes. An important aspect of this work has been a successful partnership with Boutique Modern, a small young and promising modular housing construction company, based in Newhaven.

Boutique Modern’s innovative off-site construction model allows for fine-tuned experimentation with materials and technologies, resulting in the production of homes which are highly energy-efficient.

Equally interesting is the company’s model of social innovation. In a short amount of time, Boutique Modern has collaborated with the local jobcentre plus and college group to provide secure, full time, decent employment to individuals who have previously struggled to find it.

Lewes DC has recently contracted with Boutique Modern for two successful council home building projects and has plans to build a further 200 homes with a range of providers.

Another emerging area of work is around the decarbonisation of existing housing stock. Here, Lewes is entering into a collaboration with seven other local authorities across East Sussex and the greater Brighton area.

Taken together, these local authorities own 3,500 council homes and have capital programmes worth over £100m per year. This creates a considerable opportunity to operate at scale.

Given current commitments to transition away from gas by 2025 and to reduce carbon footprint by 2030, there is a major opportunity to reshape the supply market for retrofitting. The grand prize is to do this in a way that builds local capacity and creates skilled, good quality jobs – rather than extracting wealth from the area.

It’s early days for Lewes DC, but COVID-19 has encouraged a willingness to actively intervene and reshape local economies that has been rare in recent decades.

Imaginative schemes are in discussion in a range of other areas, from investment in local renewable energy schemes to the creation of a community bank.

There is no predicting exactly what form all this will take. But there is one thing Lewes does show us for sure: when it comes to a ‘just transition’, the future’s local.

Isaac Stanley is senior researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)

@isaacmstanley

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