Inclusive growth for who?
It was great to be at the SURF conference "Place-based Inclusive Growth" last week.
I was one of many representatives from a whole host of agencies and organisations, the majority of which were ones like ours: third sector and community workers. It's not often that people on the ground sit around the table with people making policy and decisions and the SURF conference always provides a useful vehicle for an exchange of thoughts and ideas that hopefully lead to change.
The focus was on what seems to be an abstract concept that is circulating the sector: inclusive growth. It can be difficult to suspend the cynicism when a new idea is introduced - particularly if it is introduced from government level and its meaning is muddied and confused.
It sometimes makes me think of poor Nicola Murray from BBC classic The Thick of It, introducing her infamous "Fourth Sector Pathfinders" initiative. It's a term that means nothing and carries no weight from a department that is unnecessary and led by a group of inept civil servants.
Was a better policy ever introduced than "quiet bat people"? (c) BBC
However, this is different. Inclusive growth is difficult to define but it is essentially about building an economic structure that in and of itself reduces inequalities. It is about changing the view that fairness in society and support for the most disadvantaged can only work once the economy is strong. It is about reinforcing that a strong economy is the result of a fair society.
It's finally been recognised that poverty is bad for growth. Repressive policies of austerity - rather than growing the economy - have meant that people's ability to consume goods and services has been reduced. Go figure.
Even when the country sees 'economic growth', it doesn't mean that you or I see an increase in our pockets. Growth in this sense isn't inclusive, but benefits people who are already wealthy. A policy of inclusive growth would seek to make sure that financial opportunity isn't dictated by postcode.
Inclusive growth would mean ensuring that those worse off in society felt the benefits of a strong economy more than those at the top.
The key challenge then is how do we implement this? How do we make it work and what role do you or I have to play in this? Unfortunately, this is where it does get muddy.
Overhauling an economic system has been done before: look at Thatcher/Reagan's trickle-down model, and Clinton/Blair's third way approach. The important thing with those models, however, is that they didn't work in the long term.
What we need to do is let policymakers who implement this kind of change know how it should be delivered. There's a lot of talk around moving to the place principle, to use a place-based approach more in identifying how support should be delivered. This is to be applauded: sometimes universality can be restrictive for those most in need.
But we need to be careful about how we define who is most deserving. We heard conflicting opinions on this: one agency's approach to place-based support is about places which are innovating, ready to embrace change and have the capacity to do so. On the other hand, there was support for finding communities who struggled most with capacity and which were less organised being offered resources to grow.
Both of these options have their merits but they are a dichotomy. There isn't yet a clear answer.
Where do rural areas fit into this new system? Scottish Enterprise wants to see a 'golden thread' running through local, regional and national policy in a place-based approach. But for the truly disconnected areas, somewhere like Langholm at a geographical disadvantage and too far from a large town to benefit from residual economic or social improvement, there needs to be a more thoughtful process of delivery.
From the confusion came something very clear. Something has to change. The way we approach problems, the heaviness of government, the lack of diversity in these conversations, how communities are empowered, the processes and the hows and the whys...
The Scottish Government has introduced sweeping changes to how communities can work against a changing background. One important measure was the Community Empowerment Act 2015. But, as one panel member said, "the Act is not benefiting disconnected and disadvantaged communities - it's benefiting communities that are structured and wealthy."
Additionally, communities can become exhausted with the expectations placed upon them to acquire assets, provide services and the constant rhetoric of driving towards at-times elusive sustainability. As one colleague said: maybe it's time for a radical restructuring of our public services to better support communities and the people within them.
People are the power in Scotland. As Aileen Campbell MSP said: "Our biggest asset is folk." So let's support them, let's build their capacity, let them decide how an economy should function and what their communities should look like and the kind of jobs and houses and opportunities they want. Let's restructure the way our country is run and put power back where it belongs.
Then we might begin to understand what inclusive growth looks like.
Our thanks to the amazing SURF team for a fantastic conference. Check out more about SURF here.