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Rebuilding our Regions with Community Wealth Building

Mick Veitch MLC

Regional development in NSW has been misused under the current NSW Coalition Government.

Their outdated approach is either based on a “tax and spend” methodology or the distribution of funds derived from one off public asset sales, funds that are swiftly running out. In recent times, expenditure has also been characterised by pork-barrelling where the short-term political need of the Liberals and Nationals takes precedence over the long-term sustainable needs of the community.

The failure of the NSW Coalition to implement effective regional development policies has meant that many rural communities more than ever rely heavily upon one industry or employer and have no depth or layers to their economy. There is simply no effective strategy to diversify these economies. This affects the availability of quality, well-paying jobs for people living in our regions. There has also been no real attempt to address systemic issues such as gaps in economic performance and wealth accumulation, not only between the cities and the regions but also in the suburbs.

Many regions are realising that waiting for external economic injections through stimulus programs and direct government investment either will not occur or will not be sufficient to support community well-being and a sense of economic self-worth. There is a deep-seated sense in the regions and the suburbs that the prosperity of the last three decades has not been shared. The black summer bushfires, drought and floods have only compounded these sentiments – leaving already vulnerable people further exposed.

It is time to explore new approaches to regional development and community wealth building offers a nuanced, flexible approach where Governments can support local, ground up initiatives.

Over the last decade or so, Community Wealth Building (CWB) has been embraced in several jurisdictions in the UK and the USA by local authorities responsible for communities and sections of the population “left behind” by the economy. Communities with high rates of disadvantage and unemployment, combined with diminished local economic self-determination and capacity.

The concept emerged in the United States grounded in the political activism of the 1960s and 70s. It came to prominence after the global financial crisis with the prime example being the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland. This initiative was designed to create an economic breakthrough in Cleveland. In opposition to trickle-down economics, the Cleveland model focuses on economic inclusion and building a local economy from the ground up through both local employee-owned business creation and local job creation.

CWB represents a set of policies focussed on sustainability and distributive economics as seen in programs like the “Green New Deal”. It is one response to the extractive tendencies of global capitalism and financialisation, where wealth and dividends tend to be taken away from the local communities and environmental catastrophe is locked in. It is not too hard to identify a regional community in NSW that fits this description.

The argument for this policy response is only strengthened because of the shocks brought upon by COVID-19 and the related economic upheavals. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) talk about the Five Pillars of Community Wealth Building, the first being the progressive procurement of goods and services. This principle sees major public entities acting as anchor institutions who use their procurement processes and decisions making to deepen local supply chains and socially responsible business development, spending and investment.

The second pillar relates to fair employment and local labour markets and increasing fair work and developing local labour markets that support the wellbeing of communities. The third pillar is posited around the socially productive use of land and property, and this grows the social, ecological, financial and economic value that local communities gain from land and property assets. The Finance pillar ensures that flows of investment and financial institutions work for local people, communities and businesses and finally there is the plural ownership of the economy which focuses on developing more local social enterprises which generate community wealth.

The Growing Regional Opportunities for Work (GROW) in regional Victoria is an example of Community Wealth Building in practise in Australia. The initiatives were driven by local communities and are supported by the Victorian government. Currently Geelong, Shepparton, Gippsland, Bendigo and Ballarat all have CWB programs in place, but the approach taken in each location is different as they are driven by local needs. The City of Sydney are also engaged in the discussion about CWB, issuing a discussion paper last year. Community Wealth Building is a slow and deliberative process that requires time.

After so much recent devastation in our regions we need to ensure that all future rebuilding and resetting redirects wealth back into communities and gives those regional communities control over their future. Regional development policy should at the very least draw upon CWB principles to ensure that the benefits of expenditure are long lasting, embed economic resilience, and democratic development for all our regional communities.

We should at least have the discussion.

Mick Veitch MLC is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture & Regional NSW.


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