Time for Northern Ireland to move out of its economic comfort zones

One in four children in Northern Ireland are growing up in poverty, with the highest levels in Derry, Belfast and Newry & Mourne
Sarah Longlands

IT'S time for Stormont to stop waiting for Westminster or private investment to provide the answers to Northern Ireland's economic challenges. Instead, we need to start building on the assets and wealth which already exist within our businesses and communities and use that to build a fairer economy for everyone.

As it stands, our economic model is failing to deliver a good life for everyone. Life expectancy is falling across the UK and the gaps between rich and poor are getting wider. One in four children in Northern Ireland are growing up in poverty, with the highest levels in Derry, Belfast and Newry and Mourne and you only need to walk a short distance across Belfast to see how the benefits of growth in the city have been unequally shared.

Politicians and civil servants tend to see growth as the panacea to all economic woes, regardless of where that growth comes from or how it is achieved. Bring in enough investment, whether from Westminster or from overseas and, over time, this will “trickle down” to those most in need. That's not to say that there isn't concern about levels of poverty, ill health and unemployment, but these are regarded as community or social issues rather than part of the economic debate.

This needs to change. Community wealth building is an approach to local economic development which sees community, social and economic challenges as one and the same. It starts by asking questions about where wealth exists in our society, who owns it and how we can build wealth in a way which enables more people – particularly those worst off – to have a stake in the economic future of their place.

Rather than taking the traditional economic development approach of focusing solely on attracting the attention of Westminster or of private industry, community wealth building seeks to increase flows of investment within local economies, by making the most of the economic opportunities and wealth that exists locally.

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) works around the following principles.

Local businesses, community organisations and co-operatives must be supported to develop and grow because they are more financially generative than those organisations who would seek to extract wealth.

In Northern Ireland, where rates of public employment are high, it is incumbent on public sector institutions to use their economic influence to support recruitment from lower income areas, pay the Living Wage and build progression into all their jobs.

The public sector has an important role to play in developing dense supply chains of businesses likely to support local employment and retain wealth locally.

Flows of investment within local economies should be increased by harnessing and recirculating the wealth that is already there, rather than attracting capital from distant investors with more regard for profit than for the needs of the place. This includes redirecting local authority pension funds and supporting mutually owned banks.

Local land and assets held by the public sector should be used to the best advantage of citizens.

Over the course of the last decade, these principles of community wealth building – pioneered in Cleveland, Ohio and the Basque Country – has advanced in the UK.

What was once a marginal sport is now a widely-adopted corrective to a failing economic model. But there is no one size fits all approach and it's time for Stormont to stop waiting for growth and get on with building a better economic future for everyone now.

:: Sarah Longlands is chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)

:: As part of RE[act] Festival at the Europa Hotel this Friday, Sarah will host a workshop, Community Wealth Building: Where the Economy Works for People. To attend, register for free at

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