A truly progressive local agenda needs community wealth building

September 9, 2022


Local councils aren’t often at the forefront of thinking when we talk about a progressive economic agenda in Australia. While there is a lot of talk about what councils can do on climate change or how they can lead on social issues, economic discussion tends to default to rates, red tape and redevelopment.

That’s why I’m really excited that community wealth building is on the agenda of the Inner West Council in Sydney.

You might be asking, what exactly is community wealth building?

Community wealth building is a place-based approach to economic development that aims to build a fairer and more sustainable local economy. It seeks to change the way local economies function, creating and retaining more local opportunities and wealth, rather than relying on speculative development or having it extracted for the benefit of distant shareholders.

It has five key pillars that focus on procurement policies, fair employment and just labour markets, socially productive use of land and property, making financial power work for local places and plural ownership of the economy. Local “anchor” institutions tied to a geographic location like schools, TAFEs, hospitals and other key employers, including the Council itself, play a pivotal role in enabling these pillars.

It focuses on practical and common-sense approaches. Many community wealth building initiatives would be familiar to most people. Initiatives like insourcing, creating secure jobs, buying and spending locally, pop-up shops through Renew projects, supporting social, small and medium enterprises as well as co-operatives all would fall under a community wealth building umbrella. What has been missing is a strategic, system wide approach.

Community wealth building has been adopted by city and municipal governments across the world in comparable countries from towns in the north of England, boroughs in London and the Scottish Government to suburban Boston and the US cities of Cleveland and Chicago. Closer to home, the City of Sydney is developing a community wealth building policy and other cities like Ballarat are looking at the concept. While there are common principles that underpin community wealth building, it is a bespoke model appropriate for very different communities.

The ambition to make the Inner West Council a national leader in community wealth building should be applauded but ultimately political leadership will be key to its long-term success. Community wealth building is not a party specific idea and it will be important to get broader political buy-in. While Labor councillors are moving the motion to place community wealth building at the heart of the council’s economic development strategy and hold an associated economic summit, it is an agenda that councillors from other parties like the Greens or who are independents can also embrace wholeheartedly.

As a long-time advocate of community wealth building, I hope this first step that the Inner West Council takes can shift the dial nationally by inspiring others to think about how to do community wealth building where they live.

Many communities like to see themselves as progressive places, but it requires both a progressive economic as well as a socially progressive agenda. By embedding community wealth building as common practice into our local councils and other “anchor” institutions, we can help ensure our communities truly are those progressive places.

Osmond Chiu