I spoke at the Hay Festival last week, a very well-attended and enjoyable session. Every day during the Festival, the Daily Telegraph produces ‘The Hayley Telegraph’, a free magazine given away at the Festival, which includes articles by, or about, some of that day’s speakers. Here is the article I wrote for the edition published the day I spoke.
The new economic frontier is a chance for community resilience
There’s a TV advert I remember from the 1980s that has stuck with me. It features a recently unemployed man telling his wife that he and his friend are “going it alone”, that “the bank says yes”, and that they are going to set up their own business. I think the ad was for a car or something. It captured the spirit prevalent during that decade, where business was the new frontier, anything was possible, and there were no limits.
I’m starting a brewery. I don’t know much about brewing, but with other driven and skilled people from the place I live we’re going to do it. We’re not going it alone, though: we are bringing our community along with us and inviting their support. We don’t need the bank, thank you very much, we have a local person investing in us, and plan to do a community-share launch so that the community gets the chance to invest in us, too. I think our brewery also captures a spirit that’s increasingly prevalent.
It is the spirit in which we don’t wait for an imaginary cavalry to come riding to our economic rescue, a spirit visible across the country in the explosion of local food businesses, pop-up shops, craft breweries, crowdfunding, community energy projects, and the revival of independent record shops. It’s a different, more suitable approach to economic regeneration than most, recognising that anything is possible, but within the limits of energy scarcity, austerity, and the reality of living on a finite planet.
Our brewery is part of a wider story. My town, Totnes in Devon, where it will be sited, is the UK’s first ‘Transition Town’ (there are now thousands around the world), a project I, along with others, initiated in 2005. It’s an experiment that shows a more localised and lower-carbon economy can be an opportunity for huge creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
A coalition of our town council, the local Chamber of Commerce and the Development Trust recently published an economic blueprint showing how shifting just 10 per cent of what we spend on food, installing just 10 per cent of the area’s potential renewable energy-generation capacity, and starting to retrofit the most energy-inefficient housing could bring £5.5 million into the local economy each year. It’s a shift from dreaming of inward investment to a focus on internal investment, where we build more economic resilience in the local economy. We become our own cavalry.
This is already visible in a number of projects. Totnes now has its own community-owned energy company, the Totnes Renewable Energy Society, which is initiating a variety of renewable energy projects in and around the town. Transition Homes, a community land trust, now has a site on which it plans to build 26 pioneering affordable homes using local materials. The Atmos Project, a community-owned industrial and provident society, is close to bringing an eight-acre derelict former milkprocessing plant into collective ownership. The town’s local currency scheme, the Totnes Pound, which inspired the successful Bristol Pound, is preparing for a summer relaunch with a full set of denominations.
In my book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, I draw together the experience of people trying to catalyse this new economy around the world, from Brazil to Brixton, and from Sarasota to Sydney. It’s a thrilling tale. Our brewery might well turn out to be a sign of the times, just as much as that 1980s advert was.
You can now pre-order The Power of Just Doing Stuff here.