Dunbar tells Scottish Government what’s needed

To build a greener, fairer and more inclusive society in Scotland, we need to change the way the economy works. It’s important that government action to address the economic impact of COVID-19 also help build a more robust, more resilient Scottish economy.

The Scottish Government has appointed an Advisory Group on Economic Recovery to recommend how they can best do this. The Advisory Group asked for views to inform their work from a broad cross-section of organisations, businesses and individuals across Scotland. They wanted to hear from those impacted by COVID-19 and from those who will be critical to rebuilding Scotland’s economy in a greener, fairer and inclusive manner.

At Sustaining Dunbar we have long believed that this sort of re-thinking the purpose of the economy is absolutely essential – so we welcome this opportunity to tell the government’s advisory group what we think.

Sustaining Dunbar’s submission to the advisory is below. It’s based on our ten years’ experience of working with others in Dunbar and district to care for the environment and make Dunbar and the world a better, safer and fairer place for all. It also includes what we’ve learnt from the many community groups who’ve been working to tackle the effects of the pandemic locally.

The submission is made by Sustaining Dunbar, with the support of: Community Carrot; Dunbar Basics Bank; Dunbar Community Bakery; Dunbar Community Council; North Light Arts; The Ridge SCIO; and St Anne’s Scottish Episcopal & Methodist Church.

Q1: Significant macroeconomic and fiscal implications will change the economic context for the foreseeable future

What will be the shape and form of the recovery from the crisis and what will be the implications for the future growth and structure of the economy?

The Scottish Government should take this opportunity to reshape the economy so that targets, policies and taxation work all work together to reduce inequality, enhance wellbeing, restore the natural environment and tackle the climate crisis. The purpose of the economy must be to serve society as a whole – for too long the economy has concentrated wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people while those with least economic security have found life harder and more precarious.

Tackling the climate crisis is absolutely essential to the wellbeing of all and radical action must be at the heart of economic policy. Done right, reducing carbon emissions can improve lives now and in the future.

Every policy and action to stimulate economic growth must have a clear objective of delivering specific, enduring social and environmental benefits, including strengthening local communities.

During the COVID-19 crisis so far, in the Dunbar and East Linton area we have witnessed first hand how local community councils, community groups, faith groups, social enterprises and businesses have rapidly responded, collaborating and coordinating to meet the needs of people affected by the crisis. They have successfully expanded and re-organised their services, and taken on new roles, to meet needs and while complying with the requirements of lockdown.

This is a practical example of the strong, resilient communities that we will increasingly need as government provision is constrained and as society is impacted by the continuing effects of COVID-19. Such communities will also be best placed to respond to local impacts of global crises including climate crisis and ecological destruction.

While voluntary effort is central to such communities, in the long term they also need strong, diverse, local economies. Plans for COVID-19 recovery must support the development of local economies. Opportunities include:

  • Targeting measures to boost consumption to locally owned businesses, especially SMEs, rather than multinationals, for example encouraging the development of initiatives such as the East Lothian Gift Card.
  • Improving public procurement systems to (a) give significantly more weight to environmental and social criteria; and (b) to make it easier for locally owned businesses and social enterprises to sell to national and local government, public agencies, universities and colleges.
  • Supporting the development of local credit unions, so they become an attractive choice for banking, savings and loans for all sectors of society.
  • Ensuring that locally owned businesses and SMEs are able to participate in the roll out of measures to meet climate change targets, for example, decarbonising domestic heating, through installation of insulation, heat pumps etc.

Any relaxation of regulations should not be to stimulate economic growth per se; this risks prioritising economic growth over the very things the economy ought to support: the health and wellbeing of people and planet. There may well be cases where regulations and the associated procedures can be improved to make them swifter and simpler to operate and to comply with – subject to proper scrutiny. In the case of planning there is in fact a clear case for local communities having greater control and influence over major developments that affect them, and their local economy, rather than less.

Q2. Different sectors and businesses will be impacted in different ways.

What are the medium- to long-term consequences of the lockdown on businesses, including loss of employees, debt overhang, loss of markets, reduced investment and unemployment?

Small and medium sized businesses are essential to strong and resilient local communities. Many such businesses have also demonstrated how they can step up in a crises to support the community in a range of ways. Many SMEs will struggle to survive without appropriate support from government and the banks. There is a real risk that local businesses will close with a number of implications for the local community:

  • Many goods and services will no longer be available locally. People will either: have to travel further for such services, at a cost of both time and money, and also increasing carbon emissions; or they will have no option but to buy from online retailers such as Amazon which avoid paying their taxes and have a reputation for poor employment conditions.
  • Chain stores, food and drink outlets and multiple retailers will replace locally owned SMEs. While goods and services will be available locally, the profits will not re-circulate in the local economy, instead being siphoned off to distant shareholders. Many such companies also avoid paying taxes, and have no long term stake in the community.

Government support should be targeted at locally owned small and medium sized businesses. Any support to other businesses should require them to take appropriate action to tackle the climate crisis, to provide exemplary employment conditions, and to pay their fair share of taxes in the UK.

Consideration should be given to reducing National Insurance contributions of businesses of all sizes that embrace programmes to enhance and demonstrate their contribution to social and environmental good, for example the B Corporations scheme.

The creative and expressive arts are an important part of a thriving society. Dunbar and area is home to a number of grassroots arts and music projects that play an important role in the life of the community, as well as attracting visitors to the area and contributing to the local economy. Government support for grassroots arts projects and events is essential to help the sector rebuild.

Q3. The crisis will impact differently on different groups in society, and on different parts of the labour market; and, has already revealed some thorny issues about relative wages across key occupations.

What will the implications of the recovery be for different groups, unemployment and on the nature of work? How is the recovery likely to impact on socio-economic inequality as a whole?

Local groups and businesses, supported by allies in the local authority and other public agencies and alongside other key workers, have been – and continue to be – central to an effective on the ground response to the COVID crisis.

While grant support from central government has been forthcoming, and very welcome, the significant role of people willingly volunteering their own time and energy must be recognised. This includes:

  • Those serving unpaid as members of community councils, trustees of local charities, board members of social enterprises and community businesses, and committee members of community groups of various sorts.
  • People volunteering in many practical ways to provide support: delivering food and essential supplies; providing advice and signposting to people in need; etc.
  • Where community groups have paid staff, they have often gone beyond the call duty, working extra hours and undertaking new roles, in order to provide support.
  • The owners of many small businesses have given freely of their time and made resources available to support the community.

The voluntary ethos is central to community organisations, but stepping up for a short term emergency is different from being expected to provide long term services and support that would in the past have been seen as within the remit of national and/or local government. There is concern that this is the case with voluntary groups filling gaps as a result of cuts to social work.

Local groups expect need and demand to grow – for example, mental health services are next to non-existent in the area, while Universal Credit payments take six weeks to process. Local groups are on the ground and part of the communities they serve; they understand the needs and also the barriers that can prevent those in need from seeking support. They have proved they can act promptly, collaboratively, proactively and with agility.

Sustaining Dunbar, the community development trust, has been able to play a part in this by coordinating a collective funding application on behalf of local groups to access nearly £90,000 of funding. Groups have told us that while funding has been made available promptly within the first few months of lockdown, they are very concerned for the medium to long term on two counts:

  • Firstly: As the crisis becomes less newsworthy, they fear that while needs will remain and perhaps grow, funding will be increasingly scarce. This will not only impact the groups directly, but also divert management committees and staff efforts to fundraising at the expense of meeting needs.
  • Secondly: Some groups have pivoted from their core activities to help tackle the crisis. These core activities – such as training and apprenticeships for vulnerable groups – will be as important as ever, but currently most funding (both government and foundations) is focused on emergency needs. Groups worry about their ability to continue to provide their core services in the future.

It is therefore essential that future funding streams, from government and foundations, recognise the importance of the community groups both in addressing ongoing needs associated with the COVID crisis, and also in delivering a wide range of important activities that support both the community and the local environment.

Development trusts like Sustaining Dunbar, have the potential to support local groups respond to the immediate crisis, be part of the recovery and provide their core services by:

  • Raising awareness of the role of local groups and the importance of their work. (It’s notable that while the media has rightly celebrated key workers, the stories of community-led action have been few and far between).
  • Demonstrating their importance to local authorities and public agencies, and helping ensure community groups are seen as essential partners in the development and delivering of plans for recovery.
  • Providing practical support with fundraising, especially with coordinated and collaborative applications.

At Sustaining Dunbar, we have only been able to undertake the fundraising and related work that we have done because we had part time staff in post to deliver an unrelated project. Thanks to the flexibility of the funder we were able to divert staff time to supporting the COVID-19 response. If community development trusts are to support local communities respond and recover from the pandemic, and to build a stronger local community and economy, more resilient to future shocks, they will need long term, committed funding to support this work.

National climate change plans will only be achieved with the development and implementation of complementary plans and strategies by public agencies and local authorities. These strategies will undoubtedly need to be evolved to respond to the pandemic crisis and recovery. To be effective such plans must be developed with a range of stakeholders, including community groups. Community development trusts, like Sustaining Dunbar with a long standing expertise in climate change and community climate action, can play a useful role working with all parties to help community groups be more aware of the relevance of the climate crisis, and climate change policies, to their core concerns and the needs of those they serve. In doing so, community development trusts will help facilitate more meaningful and relevant climate change strategies, where a wide range of community groups contribute to the shifts in the ways we live and work to create strong, resilient and low carbon communities.

Q4. What can be done now to ensure the transition to a wellbeing-oriented, inclusive economy on a transition to net zero

How can the wellbeing of the people of Scotland flourish and what are the environmental implications of the crisis?

Governments’ responses to the pandemic have shown that not only does government have the power to make radical changes to the ways we live and work, but also that most people support these changes when they are clearly in the public good. The Scottish Government should build on this experience as part of its plan to tackle the climate crisis.

A fundamental change that is required to ensure this transition, is an unequivocal commitment from government to this ambition – and to ensuring this ambition is translated into policy at every level throughout national and local government and the public sector. Too often warm words by ministers have failed to translate into action on the ground. This commitment and the results must be meaningful and visible to people in their communities, at their work and in other aspects of their lives.

Targets must be measures of social and environmental benefits – such as levels of secure employment – not purely economic measures from which benefits are presumed to trickle down. This is the time to abandon the concept of economic growth, sustainable or otherwise, as a key measure of success. Government must address the question of “Growth of what? For whose benefit?” Doughnut economics, as being explored by Amsterdam and other cities, offers a powerful approach to understanding, enhancing and communicating the essential aspects of society and environment that allow people and the rest of nature to flourish. The Scottish Government should put the doughnut model at the heart of its national performance framework.

Leadership and commitment from government will continue to be essential – so long as it is focussed on a recovery that delivers wellbeing and tackles the climate crisis. However, equally important is the role of participative community-led decision making – at local, regional and national levels. This crisis has shown that it is people on the frontline of communities who know what needs to be done, where and how. Communities not only need to be at the table, but also to be fully involved in decision making.

The role of the natural world for people’s physical and mental health has been made obvious to us all during lockdown. This is the opportunity to improve the natural environment in and around neighbourhoods, villages and towns not just for leisure and recreational activities, but also to make journeys on foot, cycle and wheelchair more attractive and pleasant. This should include work to fully open up the core path networks, and other paths, for leisure and purposeful travel, and developing community gardens and woodlands.

The importance of wilder places has also been recognised. There is a need to protect and restore wilder places: pockets within towns, and also nearby open spaces, shorelines and hills. While there will probably always be an appetite to travel to more remote places, restoring wild places in easy reach of where people live, will provide the physical, mental and spiritual benefits such places offer while reducing time, expense and climate impacts of travelling to them. Environmental improvements such as these will also make the area more attractive to visitors and tourists.

Community groups have played a key role in creating, protecting and restoring such places, and should be supported to do more.

The lockdown has also demonstrated the potential of local farmers and growers, private and community gardens, to grow and supply food. There is real interest in and demand for locally produced food. Community gardens, such as Belhaven Community Garden and The Ridge also offer a range of social and therapeutic benefits. Local food businesses, growers, farmers and community groups should be supported to develop local food networks.

Given the likely disruption to global food systems the government and local authorities should urgently review the planning system, and current development proposals, to protect agricultural land for food production.

Much of the local housing stock needs considerable improvements to reduce carbon emissions, improve comfort and tackle fuel poverty. Major street by street, or village by village, initiatives to install insulation, replace oil fired boilers and other measures, have the potential to improve housing, reduce carbon emissions and create jobs. While such measures should be brought forward urgently it is essential that every opportunity is taken to employ, train and re-skill local people. Programmes should be developed with local groups and social enterprises, such as the Ridge in Dunbar, that have considerable experience in developing and delivering such programmes.

Training and support will also be essential to ensure a just transition to a net zero economy and society. This agenda should be accelerated and integrated into the plans for the economic recovery.

A significant impact of the lockdown has been the realisation, by staff and employers alike, that many jobs can be carried out from home. Continued home working has the potential to improve wellbeing for many – less time commuting, more time with family and to spend locally. It also has the potential to reduce carbon emissions and congestion associated with commuting – important for a town like Dunbar where 50% of those in work commute out of town (though this must be balanced against increased heating emissions). More time spent locally will also enable more people to shop locally, developing the local economy, and to be more involved in local groups, helping strengthen the community. As physical distancing measures are set to remain for some time during the recovery, government should support staff and employees put in proper, long term, arrangements to facilitate home working, including secure internet solutions, appropriate office furniture, and fast broadband (still a problem in some rural areas).

While coworking spaces have closed during lockdown, they provide a valuable resource for freelancers, SMEs, remote workers and employees who wish to work locally but not always from home. Research has demonstrated numerous benefits for personal wellbeing and business development. Community coworking centres have considerable potential not only in providing such workspace for business people, but also work and meeting space for community groups and social enterprises, with resulting opportunities for mutual support and collaboration across and within sectors, meeting needs and building social capital. Support for the development of community coworking spaces with a clear social and environmental aims has a role in both the recovery from COVID but also the transition to a net zero economy.