Welcome to my Blog

I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The future is railfreight

In July, I was asked to write an overview of rail policy in the UK for a European think tank. An absolute pleasure for a rail buff like me after working for a union with no railway members. They recently asked me to follow up on railfreight, which is even better, as that is where the real railway is!

Few parts of the railway have changed as much as the freight sector. When I was young, wagonload freights could be seen across the network, even if I am not quite old enough to remember the station goods yards that are now more likely to be car parks. In recent years, the failure of industrial strategy across the UK has seen a decline in the chemicals, metals and manufacturing goods that were routinely carried by rail. And, of course, the massive reduction in coal traffic. One of my favourite work trips was to represent workers at Longannet Power Station, which always involved a look at the fantastic merry-go-round trains coming in from Hunterston.

Hunterston coal in 1989 (Author)

The numbers are pretty staggering. In 1974, over 7800 freight trains ran every day, falling to 1100 by 2003. I was cycling past a local freight siding this week. They have reduced from 3,000 to less than 300 over the same time period. The number of wagons has also been reduced by 90%. That doesn’t mean that freight has disappeared from our railway. It still shifts some 75 million tons a day in 600 freight trains. The average wagonload has more than quadrupled and wagons are used more intensively. 
Factory sidings near Irvine (Author)

The shortage of HGV drivers has rarely been out of the news recently, another post-Brexit warning the UK Government ignored. However, the railway has stepped up to help, something that has been given less coverage. The Office of Road and Rail has published figures that showed a 36.5% increase in railfreight between April and June, compared to the same period in 2020. One in four containers moving to and from our ports are now carried by rail. Phase 1 of the £260m Mossend International Railfreight Park has been given planning approval in Scotland, and this includes sidings capable of handling 775-metre trains. Work has been delayed by the pandemic, but it is scheduled to open in early 2023, handling 16 trains a day, creating 2,700 FT jobs and 2,200 construction jobs. In India, they have just run a 176-wagon freight train; three trains operated as one!

This also matters for tackling climate change. A typical freight train carries the equivalent of 76 HGV’s. Some 7 million lorry loads of freight are moved by rail each year, helping cut traffic jams and pollution. 16% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions came from HGVs in 2019. As Andy Bagnall of the Rail Delivery Group said: “Whether it’s goods or people, to build back better and to create a fair, clean economy for tomorrow, the country relies on a thriving railway. To realise its commitment to net zero by 2050 and support economic growth, government should set an ambitious target to encourage the shifting of goods from road to rail.” Don’t hold your breath, Andy!

Despite the demise of coal, bulk freight is still a vital rail customer. From china clay slurry used in paper whitening just up the road from me in Ayrshire to the five million tons of aggregates and 600,000 tons of cement used in construction. Without railfreight these bulk goods would put a staggering number of heavy lorries onto our roads. Other heavy loads include waste and spoil, oil (including airports), alumina, and rail infrastructure operations like ballast.

Prestwick Airport oil siding receives a delivery (Author)

Arguably the most significant potential growth in railfreight should be inter/multimodal, moving goods by container, mostly from ports to rail terminals. This sector is helping the most with the HGV driver shortage, which points the way to a better and greener future for transport operations in the UK and elsewhere. Felixstowe Docks alone manages more than four million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) annually.

To move forward, the rail system needs investment in rolling stock and technology, particularly ways of moving and offloading goods. More could be done in supporting businesses to move freight transport from road to rail through the Mode Shift Revenue Support grant scheme, which is very small. Although it still removes a million lorry journeys per year. There are challenges for railfreight, not least the removal of diesel locomotives by 2040. Electric power will not be extended to all freight routes by then, if ever. There are technology solutions, including electro-diesel and potentially hydrogen, but that will require more investment. Some also think that autonomous trucks are the future, but I think that requires a degree of public acceptance that is a long way off.

Research for the Rail Delivery Group shows that a modal shift towards rail freight is essential in decarbonising the freight and logistics sector and wider society. Reductions in carbon emissions can be achieved by facilitating the growth in existing flows, like intermodal and construction materials, and the development of new flows such as parcels and light logistics. The future is rail; it’s now up to the industry and governments to act.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Delivering a fairer society - policy and people.

I am in London this week, mostly doing some research in the National Archives and British Library. However, I spent a day at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, and it was good to meet in person a couple of organisations I have been doing some policy development work with.

Sadly, policy has not been the focus of this conference. Few people like a rule book more than me, and I have written more than a few Labour Party ones. However, last-minute rule changes without any consultation are not a good idea. More importantly, it makes Labour look like it's more interested in internal squabbles than addressing the mess the country is in. This is a decent explanation of what it was all about if anyone cares!

On policy, Angela Rayner made a good start with her plans to introduce sectoral collective bargaining, as Francis O’Grady said, ‘a game changer’. Sadly, not only was it drowned out by the rule change fiasco but later by Andy MacDonald’s resignation. £15 an hour and SSP at the Living Wage looks to me like a practical lesson from the pandemic. I am sure there will be more from Angela on employment issues. She is an excellent example of why we need fewer professional politicians and more with lived experience in harsh workplaces.

Keir Starmer’s Fabian booklet didn’t exactly get rave reviews. However, I have now had a chance to read it, and I don’t have a problem with much of the content. I can see how it reflects what he heard during the summer with his concept of a ‘contribution society’. I voted for him in the Leadership ballot while recognising that he could be viewed as worthy and competent if a bit boring. After the mess Johnson and the Tories have created, a bit of technocratic competence is fine with me. However, Labour needs a bit more of the vision thing, particularly if the strategy is to be statesmanlike in response to the pandemic.

I’m not convinced that this sets out a distinctive alternative vision, certainly not a radical one. It is stronger than the New Labour years, putting obligations on companies to serve society, tackle climate change and be good employers. But banal declarations about the merit of good things is not enough; there needs to be more about how a fairer society can be achieved. The Road Ahead confirms how much thinking still remains to be done.

Hopefully, other policy initiatives launched or passed at the conference signal a move away from the ‘policy light’ strategy that was looking more than past its sell-by date. Moving from the dated business rates system towards a digital tax is something Scottish Labour promoted during the last election and would be helped by action on a UK level. The Green New Deal motion was an important reminder of where the party is when some Shadow Cabinet members give the impression that they favour slower action. Ed Miliband at least still promotes energy nationalisation, something of an open goal given the current crisis you would have thought.

While I am on the policy theme, I will shamelessly plug the latest booklet from the Red Paper Collective, launched during the conference. Shameless because I wrote the chapter on devolving immigration policy. The booklet makes a case for devolving power, not only from Westminster but on to local government. In a series of chapters it details what could make up a third option in any future referendum.

If all this policy is too much for you, I recommend Neil Findlay’s new book, ‘If you don’t run, they can’t chase you.' It’s an inspiring read, which tells the stories of ordinary people who stepped up to become genuine heroes. But, as Neil says, it's about 'people who can’t be chased - because they didn’t run in the first place.' This is why politics is important and why we need a Labour Party that is relentlessly on the side of working people.

Monday, 20 September 2021

National Care Service

The Scottish Government has published a consultation paper on the creation of a National Care Service in Scotland. This follows the Independent Review of Adult Social Care (Feeley report, Feb 2021). Many of us with long experience in the sector welcomed the Feeley Report while expressing concerns about over-centralisation and funding.

The paper seeks views on the scope of the NCS, which goes further than adult social care to include children's services, alcohol and drugs, mental health, criminal justice social work and all community health services, including general practice. Ministers will be accountable for social work and social care, leaving local government as simply another service provider. The mixed economy of care will continue with services commissioned from health boards, councils, third and private sector providers. Workforce regulation and inspection services will remain independent of the NCS.

The NCS will set the commissioning framework, including pay and conditions and outcomes. Complex and specialist services will be commissioned centrally with others commissioned locally by new Community Health and Social Care Boards (replacing the IJBs), directly funded by the Scottish Government. The CEO will report to the NCS. There will be national workforce quality standards to help deliver Fair Work principles, which could include a 'Fair Work Accreditation Scheme'. In addition, the consultation seeks views on national sector-level collective bargaining arrangements as recommended by the Feeley Report. 

I was involved in drafting the SHA Scotland response to the consultation and broadly agreed with the concerns they set out, which include:
  • It will take a significant amount of time to implement organisational change of this magnitude. In the meantime, the system is in crisis now. In particular, we have a demoralised, tired, and financially stretched frontline staff who immediately need a break, decent pay and a vote of confidence.
  • The scope of the NCS is too broad. The range of services removed from local democratic accountability will damage integration. For example, separating children's services from education makes no sense, and social Work is also a local service with essential links to community activity that will be undermined by the dead hand of ministerial intervention. It will also create new barriers to shifting resources from acute to community services as health boards focus on acute services.
  • The proposals involve a high degree of centralisation, giving ministers new powers that effectively remove local democratic accountability - rebranding IJB's (again) with even less local accountability. This approach is contrary to the Christie Commission principles and the recent legislation on the European Charter of Local Self Government. Moreover, the lessons from previous centralisations (e.g. Police Scotland) have clearly been ignored.
  • The workforce proposals are less than firm. Trade unions have long argued for national collective bargaining supported by job evaluation and comprehensive workforce planning. Only those providers who meet that standard should be considered for service commissioning. The current Fair Work initiative suffers from a lack of enforcement, as set out in the recent Jimmy Reid Foundation paper. The Scottish Government has all the levers required to achieve better outcomes in the social care sector.
  • The proposals effectively retain the marketisation of social care with the inclusion of for-profit services. It does not address the growing involvement of private equity, hedge funds and real estate investment trusts in the care sector and the use of predatory financial techniques. Let alone look seriously at the lessons of the pandemic for the future provision of residential care. 
  • The funding arrangements are inadequate for the scale of the challenges facing social care now. The NHS has a £1billion recovery plan, but there is no equivalent plan for social care. In fact, there are no costings in the consultation on the development of the NCS or how it is to be funded. 
  • The UK Government plans to fund an increase in social care spending, including addressing accommodation costs, by raising national Insurance (NI). This is the wrong approach, placing the burden on working people. However, the Scottish Government’s funding plans also fail to address these issues. £840m barely meets the current funding deficit, let alone improve services. Audit Scotland's analysis shows that spending on adult social work care needs to rise incrementally from £4.35bn in the next financial year to £7.66bn in 2034.
  • Most western European countries have implemented some funding reforms in recent years, while the UK's means-tested care funding remains broadly unchanged. The pandemic has also highlighted social care challenges across Europe. The proposals in the consultation simply increase the financial support.
  • The consultation gives little consideration to the broader impact of social care and has only limited support for unpaid carers. Post-pandemic, there is also an opportunity to create a caring economy by linking the NCS to a wider economic strategy. This was promised in the Gender Pay Gap Plan back in 2018, but not for the first time; bold statements are not followed through with action.
Creating a National Care Service remains the right approach. However, its role should be to create a national framework, with services designed and delivered locally. I agree with COSLA that this represents a direct attack on localism and on the rights of people to make and benefit from decisions taken locally.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

UK rail policy in transition

One of the many things I enjoyed about working for UNISON was the range of issues we covered. While some days I wished I worked for a single industry union, it was rarely dull! However, I have always loved railways, and that was an industry we didn't cover. So, when a European think tank asked me to write an overview of UK rail policy as part of a Europe wide paper, I jumped at the chance.


I wrote the paper at a time when the industry is potentially entering a period of significant change. The UK Government has published the Williams/Shapps plan for rail, ‘Great British Railways’.  The Scottish government has followed the Welsh government lead and announced the Dutch firm Abellio would stop running the ScotRail franchise at the end of March 2021. After this, an "arms-length" Scottish government company will take over the running of services. This highlights the different approaches devolved governments can take, although non-ScotRail services in Scotland, the sleeper and main lines to England will still come under the UK plan.

The UK plan concedes that the privatised railway wasn’t working before the pandemic. Not a small concession from a Tory government, but difficult to avoid given the timetable shambles and the East Coast franchise debacle. The pandemic is the primary driver for change. As commuters made up 47% of all rail passengers, a further 10% travelled for business meetings, and 5% were shopping. In other words, around two-thirds of passengers were using the railways for purposes that now face potentially permanent change. The plan makes further commitments, including “a modern, improved experience for both freight customers and passengers and zero carbon trains. We are growing the network, not shrinking it.” However, they also say the current sums being paid to operate and maintain the railways are not sustainable. So, change has to be done on the cheap, as many of the costly aspects of privatisation remain unchanged. They anticipate that system simplification alone will save around £1.5 billion a year, equivalent to 15% of the network’s pre-pandemic fares income.


A new public body, Great British Railways, will own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables. Great British Railways aims to simplify the current confusing mass of tickets, but it will contract with private companies to operate trains to the timetable and fares it specifies. This is similar to the system used by Transport for London (TfL) on its successful Overground and bus networks.


It remains to be seen if this plan ushers in a “new golden era for the railways”. Industry groups gave the ambition a cautious welcome but highlighted the lack of detail. The rail unions were more scathing. ASLEF’s Mick Whelan said: 'Under these plans the private companies will still pocket a profit, but all the risk – the revenue risk – is being dumped back on the public purse. The government is changing the model but protecting the privateers, and privatising any profit. We believe in a great British railway – in the public ownership of a public service – where the wheels and steel – the locomotives, carriages, and the rails on which they run – are brought back together in a vertically-integrated operation to benefit businesses and passengers.”. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said, “If the government were serious about recognising ‎the impact of failed rail policy down nearly three decades, they would cut out the middleman, strip away the dead weight of the private companies and work with their staff on building a transport system fit for the future where investment in the workforce and infrastructure comes first.”


The unions were much more welcoming of the devolved administrations' approach. TSSA's Manuel Cortes said, “The COVID-19 pandemic made it abundantly clear that our railways are a public service, not a piggy bank for fat cat shareholders. And Welsh Labour showed the way when they nationalised the railways earlier this year.”


Significant though these changes are, many other issues need to be addressed. I covered many of these in my paper, including:

  • The pandemic has not gone away. I write this blog post on a train to London with two different sets of rules on the wearing of masks. No longer compulsory once we reached Carlisle, although patchily observed in Scotland. The failure of rail operators to publish research on COVID risks is not encouraging.

  •  Delivering rail on the cheap also brings other safety concerns. The 30th anniversary of the Newton rail disaster reminds us of the consequences. As ASLEF’s Kevin Lindsay said, “It is vitally important that we work, every day, to improve the safety of our railway and do nothing to compromise the safety of passengers and staff."

  • The UK’s transport emissions have hardly changed for three decades, despite fuel efficiency improvements and the recent rise of electric vehicles. Transport accounts for 28% of the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The UK transport decarbonisation plan is again strong on rhetoric but weak on implementation detail. Full electrification of the railways is some way off and probably unachievable for rural lines. So, more work is needed on carbon capture of diesel engines and other solutions like battery trains. Sadly, this includes my beloved steam engines, which at least are now being built in Scotland. This is after all Love Your Railways week, which aims to raise awareness of every heritage railway across the country.

  • The financial consequences of the pandemic have been highlighted in the Public Accounts Committee report on the English rail system. The need to deliver affordable rail fares will be critical in getting passengers back onto the railways. For example, Scots travellers can pay up to 70% more to travel by train than the plane, particularly on cross-country journeys.

  • We also need to link railways to an industrial strategy. The Welsh Government developed an industrial strategy for building at least half of all new trains in Wales, but Scotland or the rest of the UK has no equivalent. The risk is that we repeat the shambles of failed procurement policies in the renewable energy sector. Rail freight also needs to be able to operate on a level playing field with passenger services.

Policy responses to the pandemic put some vital sticking plasters in place, but there are some real 'where next?' questions to answer. These will have significant implications for the balance between public transport, cycling, walking and the car - and how we achieve a rapid transition to a zero-carbon transport system. For railways, the solution is best summed up by ASLEF, “The only sensible way to run our railway is with wheels and steel together, with public ownership and operation.”

Keir Hardie understood this more than a century ago!

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Christie Commission - Ten Years On.

Next week is the tenth anniversary of the report of the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, known as the Christie Commission. I spent six months working as an expert advisor to the Commission. Sadly, while the principles of the Christie Commission are widely quoted, the delivery has been patchy at best.

 The Commission’s key conclusions were that Scotland’s public services require comprehensive reform by empowering communities, integrating service provision, preventing negative social outcomes and becoming more efficient. 


At the time, the Commission's public finance predictions were regarded as pretty grim. However, due to the political choices by the UK Government, which we now call austerity, the cuts were even more severe in practice. The long-term trends around the demand for public services and the impact of demographic change have proved all too accurate. Equally important to the Commission was growing inequality between the top and the bottom 20% in income, employment, and health outcomes. The consequences of disadvantage impose financial costs on public services, estimated at 40%+ of local public service spending. They also recognised the crucial contribution public services made to the Scottish economy and tackled the myth that public services are a drag on economic progress. Sadly forgotten during austerity with consequential damage to the Scottish economy.


The Commission identified problems with public service delivery, including fragmented authority and operational duplication, coupled with a top-down approach that designs services for individuals rather than with them. The recommended solutions focused on allowing services and communities to work together to decide what needs to be done, making the best use of all the resources available - taking an integrated long term, preventative approach. Staff should be empowered by leaders to actively seek innovative solutions with a strengthened public service ethos and common training for all staff based on enabling and empowering the lives of people and communities.


Ten years on, public service challenges look pretty similar, with the obvious addition of pandemic recovery following on from austerity economics, which created the longest recovery from recession on record. Scotland’s deep-seated inequalities remain largely untouched, and child poverty has increased. Demographic change has only partially been alleviated by increased migration, even that is under threat from Brexit and UK Government immigration policies. Austerity has savagely reduced the public service workforce, particularly in local government, forcing staff to abandon the critical Christie approach of prevention and revert to the statutory minimum at best.  


Integration has been limited, even in the vital area of social care. The idea that all public service organisations operating in a local authority area should view themselves as part of a common framework hasn’t happened. The silos that Christie sought to bring down are very much in place. Instead of a bottom-up approach based on empowerment, we have seen the centralisation of services. 


Five years after Christie, I wrote a paper for the Reid Foundation on public service reform. This built on the Christie principles with a call to build integrated public services around recognisable communities, based on the principle of subsidiarity with service delivery at the lowest practical level. I argued that the role of the central government should be to set the strategic direction based on outcomes – rather than trying to direct services from Edinburgh. Government should agree on frameworks that allow the local to focus on what matters. This should include a public sector ethos and fair work principles embodied in a national workforce framework. The single public service worker could minimise organisational and professional barriers and provide confidence for staff to engage in service redesign. 


As we look to build back better after the pandemic, the principles of integration, prevention empowerment and subsidiarity look as relevant as ever. The question as ever is the political will to make the necessary changes. I hope I won’t be writing a similar blog in 2031, but I wouldn't bet on it! 

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The future of work

I have been helping to review the HR policies of a charity as it considers a return to normal operations after the pandemic. We had a false start last year, although the return to work arrangements are still broadly relevant. I did an HR review a couple of years ago, and there was significant opposition from middle managers to the flexible working proposals. Almost all of which subsequently proved to be doable during the pandemic!


This is a charity that wants to be viewed as a progressive employer. Sadly, as the recent TUC survey shows, one in ten staff have been put under pressure to return to the workplace contrary to current government guidance. As they say, it is "the tip of the iceberg" of employers ignoring their health and safety responsibilities.  A recent survey found that out of 4,553 office workers in five different countries, every single person reported feeling anxious about the idea of returning to in-person work. A Scottish study also found a wide range of concerns. Official figures show that nearly one in five adults in employment experienced depression at the start of this year. The top causes of return-to-work stress included being exposed to COVID-19, the loss of work flexibility, the added commute, wearing a mask while in the office, and a need for childcare. 56% of respondents reported that their organisation hadn't asked for their opinions about return-to-work policies and procedures. That was the number one priority in the plans we put in place.


The UK Government is creating a one-stop-shop watchdog for enforcing employment rights. Responsibility for tackling modern slavery, enforcing the minimum wage and protecting agency workers, currently spread across three different bodies, will be brought under one roof. As the TUC says, the new body looks "heavy and spin, but light on action" as there are no plans to legislate or make new funding available. The TUC action plan offers a more credible enforcement approach. The Scottish Government has made another bid to have employment law devolved as part of its new poverty strategy. This would have more credibility if they used the powers they currently have, including procurement. NHS Education for Scotland recently awarded a contract to Amazon. They confirmed to my FoI request that the Scottish Government Fair Work criteria were NOT applied to the evaluation of bids for this contract. This reinforces the criticisms of Fair Work in the recent Reid Foundation paper.

The return to something approaching normal after the pandemic is an opportunity to think about the future of work as part of a Build Back Better approach. I was pleased to see that Angela Rayner will be looking at this as part of the UK Labour policy review. This has been widely welcomed in recognition of the changes the pandemic will bring, not least a hybrid model of working. It wasn't that long ago when I was making at least a monthly trek from Glasgow to London for meetings, but that world is thankfully gone.


Having said that, we should be careful about how we manage this change. The pandemic measures were hastily put in place in most organisations. There has been minimal discussion around what day-to-day working lives might look like, how the benefits of flexibility might be successfully realised, and the longer-term challenges. There is good evidence that employees are more productive, but there are also additional costs. Another study found that only half of the workers felt their employers had adequately supported them in this additional outlay. There are also concerns about a two-tier workforce developing and fears of insecurity and outsourcing. As someone who worked from home before the pandemic, I have some sympathy with the view of anthropologists who have been telling us that it's often the informal, unplanned interactions and rituals that matter most in any work environment. According to a 2017 Co-op and New Economics Foundation report, the cost of loneliness to UK employers was estimated at £2.5bn every year. A guide published by the UK Government identifies five key themes in addressing loneliness at work. 


The future of work also has to address other fundamental changes like artificial intelligence and 'spy' technologies at work. The loss of old-style supervision in the workplace is being replaced in some organisations by technologies that allow managers to track workers' keystrokes, mouse movements and the websites they visit. They can take screenshots of employees to check whether they are at their screens and looking attentive, or even use webcam monitoring software that measures eye movements, facial expressions and body language. The organisation I have been working with decided to adopt an 'ethics of care' approach that reviews their surveillance practices and opens a dialogue with workers and their trade unions about the impact. Through collective organising in trade unions, workers can help shape how technological change is implemented in their workplace, and there are some positive examples of this. There is also a need to update the regulatory standards.


While we can take some short-term actions to manage a good work approach to the post-pandemic working environment, the future of work needs a long-term approach by governments, employers and trade unions.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Paint Your Town Red

Community Wealth Building is a new kind of economy. It offers a way of addressing the major divides in wealth and opportunity by focusing on local economies. This new book by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones looks at how the UK’s leading exponent, Preston, took back control of their local economy and how others could do the same. The leading exponent of Community Wealth Building in Scotland is Labour North Ayrshire Council, and the Scottish Government has also announced its intention to develop a country-wide programme.

 At the heart of Community Wealth Building is the belief that ordinary individuals and groups can take ownership, direction, and control of their own resources to improve their own lives. When there is little prospect of economic transformation coming from Westminster, local action is a critical source of hope and change.


The book has three parts.


Part One looks at the history and thinking behind Community Wealth Building. It makes the political case against austerity economics and the case for a radical alternative. The pandemic has also highlighted the failure of global supply chains and precarious work. Community Wealth Building has its roots in cooperative and other self-governing movements worldwide, and these are explored from the Mondragon cooperative in Spain to the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland, Ohio. And finally, to Preston and their work with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). The book recognises the importance of local leadership, including Jamie Driscoll in North of Tyne and Joe Cullinane in North Ayrshire, who bring in new ideas tailored to local circumstances.


Part Two looks at how the ideas were applied in Preston, not as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ blueprint; instead, it shows how the concept has been used in practice. It has taken Preston from being one of the country’s most deprived and disadvantaged, hit by deindustrialisation, austerity and government funding cuts, to seeing significant economic improvement through shifting spending and investment from external suppliers to local producers and businesses. This chapter shows how it was done, bringing on board the anchor institutions in the city and using the power of public procurement, using case studies to illustrate the mechanisms.


Part Three looks at how Community Wealth Building is being applied in different ways across the UK. Devolution has been an important driver, as it allows the nations and regions of the UK to take a different approach from the UK Government’s centralism. North Ayrshire is used as a case study to illustrate how the concept has been applied to reflect the needs of that local authority area. Although welcoming the Scottish Government’s interest, Joe Cullinane emphasises the need for it to be accompanied by a commitment to a transformative agenda, to avoid diluting its potential when scaled-up and to get beyond abstract political platitudes on “inclusive growth” or “well-being”.


One aspect of Community Wealth Building that can seem challenging is creating alternative financial institutions after the 2008 financial crisis exposed the failings of the current banking model. The book highlights the role of credit unions and how to establish a mutual ‘people’s bank’. I also liked the chapter that urged less consultancy and more “Let’s do something and see what happens”! 


The book’s final part is a guide on ‘How to Paint Your Town Red’. It starts with local government and how it can still offer radical and positive change. Then develops how you can use the council to establish progressive procurement and engage with the trade unions and the pension fund. This includes a useful guide to further resources. This book doesn’t duck the challenges in adopting this model. In particular, it isn’t always easy to evaluate the outcomes, and public engagement is never simple. In Scotland, we have tried a wide range of initiatives, but none have fully achieved citizen buy-in, particularly in disadvantaged areas. 


It also recognises some of the political challenges in getting councils to think radically. The recent elections show that the electorate has rewarded councils like Preston. These ideas featured in the Scottish Labour manifesto, but community didn’t feature as strongly as it might have done in the campaign. However, It’s encouraging that Labour’s devolved leaders are to meet regularly to develop ideas like Community Wealth Building. Labour’s electoral path to recovery should be built on localism, not centralisation. 


This isn’t an academic evaluation of Community Wealth Building. It aims to explain the concept and help those councillors who want to break away from simply administering the council towards painting their own town red.