Stoking the flames of renewal

October 17, 2011 by
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

I hate Stoke on Trent. It is a place of pain, rain and misery. Before Fellows and friends from the Potteries denounce me, I should admit that my feelings are totally unreasonable and entirely based on having watched my beloved West Bromwich Albion get repeatedly beaten – usually in the bleak mid-winter – by their bogey team Stoke City.

But today I associate the Staffordshire metropolis with inspiration.

On Saturday the RSA – some great Fellows and enthusiastic staff – were honoured to join with Stoke Community Action Fund in hosting Stoke Stories. Rather like the recent Our Leicester event this was a day dedicated to bringing together a wide range of active local citizens and civic organisations to discuss how the city can survive and thrive in these difficult times. 

RSA colleagues will be posting more detailed accounts of the day on the Fellowship blog but I want to explore the wider issues generated by events like this.  In essence, the attempt to mobilise civil society (which includes public and private organisations with a commitment to place that goes beyond legal responsibilities and profit maximisation) can be seen to have three sets of objectives.

The first is to some extent accomplished in the very holding of the event. It is to strengthen connections and create a context for new initiatives and collaborations. If the Stoke event achieved nothing more, it would have been worth it for the lively Facebook page and a great email list creating forums for ideas to be launched and developed. In his closing remarks, Danny Flynn from North Staffs YMCA, instructed all the delegates to talk to one person they did not already know and then send the outcome of their conversation to local MP Tristram Hunt. 

The second and third objectives are tougher to achieve:  with the economy in the doldrums, unemployment rising, living standards falling and public service provision being cut, is it possible to generate either improvements in the quality of people’s lives or the health of the local economy? To understand whether and how this is possible requires the development of what I have called ‘a social economy of place’.

On the one hand, this means identifying, mobilising and organising key factors of social production to generate better outcomes for local citizens. Key amongst these factors are:

  • Time
  • Care and compassion
  • Regard and esteem
  • Creativity, innovation and hope

In relation to these factors, we know those in play could be applied more productively and also that every large community contains a deep reservoir of untapped time, compassion, esteem and creativity. The big question is: ‘how much social good could in practice be released by the better articulation of these factors?’ To take two obvious examples: could the spare time of those who are unemployed and under employed  be better directed towards those whose main problem is loneliness and social isolation; or could better linkages between people make a variety of sporting and cultural activities more viable and affordable, think here of book clubs or kids’ football tournaments.       

The economic challenge is even tougher. It is whether, on the one hand, money spent in a place can circulate for longer and more widely in that place (think here of various schemes to encourage people to purchase from locally owned shops) and, on the other, stronger social bonds can start to generate commercial opportunities based on cluster effects or economies of scale (for example, could local craftspeople combine to create a shared marketing and on-line trading capacity).

It is great that the RSA is involved in initiatives like those in Stoke and Leicester. But as a research and development organisation with links to the wider world of ideas, the RSA should be aiming to work with localities to do the tough work of exploring how civic enthusiasm can be applied to a civic strategy underpinned by a robust social economy of place.

As so often the problem is capacity. The RSA has a great deal of relevant insight and experience from projects like Connected Communities and Citizen Power. I would love to find the funding to enable a major action research project (which we would happily do in collaboration with partners) to explore one of the most important questions of our time: how do we tap the hidden wealth of every community so that society can flourish despite the continuing frailties of the market and state.



  • Ian Christie

    Thanks Matthew. I know what you mean about Stoke. It’s also a useful stand-by for English football commentators keen to bring some fancy-dan Spanish or Brazilian maestro or team down to Earth. As in ‘I’ll grant you Messi is a genius, Alan, but I can’t help wondering if he could really deliver on a wet night in Stoke’, etc etc.

    Good for Stoke RSA and CAF. The economic aspect of this kind of project is crucial now. Is there scope not only for non-monetary exchange and solidarity, as in time banks etc, but also for local forms of Quantitative Easing, eg new types of local currency, to keep money flowing within local economies?

  • Edward Harkins FRSA

    Matthew I so agree with your argument that one of the most important questions of our time: how do we tap the hidden wealth of every community. I also support your ‘worrying away’ at how we could find the resources to make some sort of impact (The RSA’s work on ‘Connected Communities’ is of course invaluable in itself).

    I believe that engagement with the local citizen is a field rich in potential impact that the RSA could make. It just seems that institutions of government across the UK have demonstrated themselves inept and/or incapable of engaging meaningfully and effectively with the citizen at the level of locality.

    In, for example, my earlier response to Scottish Government’s 2011 community regeneration policy discussion paper, I devoted most of a chapter to the failures across the UK regeneration field in contending with the citizen and locality:

    “one of the significant failures in regeneration across recent decades is in the community engagement and community-led regeneration dimensions.”


    “This track record of failure is now well evidenced over a considerable period and can in large part be attributed the commonly underestimated timescales and resources required for effective community engagement.”

    I go on cite how:

    “In his 2004 paper Including the community in local regeneration? The case of Greater Pollok social inclusion partnership, Dr. Chris McWilliams argues that community consultation and participation, especially in the critical and formative early stages, of the social inclusion partnership (SIP) were at best tokenistic and probably woefully inadequate. There is even the suggestion that on the worst interpretation, local people were being exploited to legitimise the policy process. “


    that there is “a more contemporary context in the findings of the ongoing GoWell research project on area regeneration in Glasgow. The researchers assert that the main role of community and voluntary representatives from the resident communities on partnership boards, is to legitimise what the agencies intend to do anyway.”

    The history of failure is long and hard – that suggests the scope for impact and positive outcomes for the citizen is considerable. Some of the evidence, and further commentary, is at pages 20-26 in my submission; freely available at:

  • John Montgomery

    Matthew, I read a book on Stoke a few months back and foolishly loaned to to a friend. It was one of the saddest pieces on cities I have read in a long time. It goes to show that economic development (and decline) occurs in real places, and that if a local economy loses its dynamism, the place itself stagnates and may even die. Stoke is to the UK what Detroit is to the USA…

    The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent is by Matthew Rice, who is married to the pottery owner Emma Bridgewater.

    I reckon I could help turn Stoke around!