IWA Analysis: Building from the Bottom: Delivering wellbeing and resilience through community ownership

Lydia Godden summarises the IWA and Bangor University’s recent event about the role of social enterprises and community ownership models in tackling local economic challenges.

Since 2022, the IWA has partnered with Bangor University to produce a series of debates and discussions on a wide range of topics, including the economic future of North Wales. The partnership has enhanced the visibility of research and innovation initiatives across Wales.

The latest event in the partnership, taking place in March 2024, focussed on community ownership and their role in tackling local economic challenges. The rise of social enterprises and local ownership models in north Wales presents the potential for communities to explore tangible bottom-up solutions to the issues they face, building local resilience. Our event explored the potential for such initiatives to tackle the wider social, economic, and cultural challenges the region faces where local people are coming together to purchase, manage and sustain their assets. 

The discussions were chaired by Professor Andrew Edwards (Bangor University) and we were joined by expert panellists Dr Edward Jones, (Bangor University), Selwyn Williams, (Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog), Meleri Davies, (Partneriaeth Ogwen), Grant Peisley, (Datblygiadau Egni Gwledig) and Jess Silvester (People’s Economy). Our highly engaged audience, many having experience across social enterprises or community owned ventures, provided further insights and considerations, raising important questions such as how we can overcome barriers and grow the social enterprise sector across Wales. The event was held at Ty Gwyrddfai, Adra, the UK’s first decarbonisation hub delivered as a collaborative project between Adra, Grŵp Llandrillo Menai and Bangor University. Ty Gwyrddfai puts north Wales at the forefront of the decarbonisation agenda and is an example of what could be achieved across Wales to maximise future low-carbon employment opportunities. 

Local solutions to local problems

Across Wales, economic regeneration remains a significant challenge, arguably the challenge of the devolved era. Local economies, such as Conwy in north Wales, face significant barriers to redevelopment and successive top-down policies of both the Welsh and UK Governments have made little impact on productivity rates with acute levels of economic inactivity and child poverty. With local authorities and Community Councils on a financial tight-rope, struggling to maintain assets and services, coupled with the sustained cost-of-living crisis, how can community ownership and social enterprises facilitate community development and economic benefit to the north Wales region?

Across north Wales, communities are working together to take control of local assets. Such endeavours show the value and impact that bottom-up approaches to economic development can have. Therefore, our event shed light on three questions. How can social enterprises and bottom-up approaches help north Wales achieve a fairer economy? What are the wider cultural and social impacts of these initiatives? And what barriers remain and how might we overcome these and grow the social enterprise sector across Wales?

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

Building from the bottom

The event began with a presentation from Dr Jones, who explored the value of community assets and local ownership, highlighting the links between inequality and power dynamics in communities. Our own report, Our Land: Communities and Land Use, finds that austerity has significantly impacted the power for communities and is likely to have resulted in the loss of important community assets. Greater community ownership represents a shift from traditional top-down to bottom-up, community rooted approaches where the ‘community can decide what’s best for it’, argues Jones. This presents a different approach, one where we must recognise that ‘communities have the vision to solve their own problems and address their own needs’ an approach that can achieve a fairer economy according to Silvester from The People’s Economy

So what can community ownership look like? Peisley outlined the important role of community ownership within green energy and its ability to simultaneously tackle both fuel poverty and climate change at the local level while contributing to the local economy. Indeed, our recent research paper, Sharing power, spreading wealth, outlines the potential power for enhanced community energy to retain economic benefits to communities, allow for a fairer green economy where incomes are redistributed and build greater resilience at the local level – importantly playing a role in economic regeneration across Wales. As Peisley outlines, while economic development through foreign direct investment of big corporations into Wales plays a role, community ownership, particularly within green energy, ‘is about what lies at the community level to grow and build ourselves’. 

Social enterprises and community ownership models offer a more sustainable approach to growth

With the recent establishment of Ynni Cymru, a publicly owned renewable energy developer aiming to expand community-owned energy generation across Wales, there is exciting potential for the growth of this sector and wider economic impacts across Wales. In our own research we recommend that the Welsh Government should accelerate community ownership on commercial renewable energy projects, by compelling all new commercial projects above 5MW to have a minimum level of 15% of community and local ownership by 2028. 

Working together is key according to Williams, who attributed this to the success of the wider social enterprise sector in north Wales. He explained that Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog has fifteen social enterprises working collaboratively with an integrated approach across environmental and social issues. Social enterprises and community ownership models offer a more sustainable approach to growth and Silvester highlights the importance of operating within planetary boundaries. Indeed, unlike other businesses, profits are not the end goal but are retained and reinvested within the local community. The ultimate focus is not wealth generation but community wellbeing, reducing economic inequality, improving social justice and environmental sustainability.

Beyond economic impact

The wider cultural and social impacts of social enterprises must not be forgotten. Alongside their evident economic potential, in north Wales social enterprises play an important cultural role, impacting the potential growth of the Welsh language. As Davies explained, strong Welsh language policies within place based community organisations can ‘create spaces where the language can be used’ allowing young people to ‘develop their career through the language of Welsh’. Social enterprises operating in the Welsh language offer the potential for ‘safeguarding’ and growing the language between both Welsh and non-Welsh language speakers if they are placed across these communities, added Williams. To share wider learning of social enterprise developments across communities, Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog launched ‘Brocast Ffestiniog’ a digital broadcasting service – using digital means to share 

North Wales experiences significant depopulation, where many young people leave the region to seek employment opportunities elsewhere, in south Wales, England or further afield. So what role can social enterprises play in retaining young people? ‘We set our own rules on pay and employment terms… We can make work flexible with a four day week… and we believe in high fair pay’, stated Peisley on providing well paid local employment opportunities for young people. Going further, Williams questioned how social enterprises can attract young people to return back to their communities and called for a wider cultural change to the nature of work. ‘It’s a political question of if they want to service capitalism in London or if they want to return to service their local community’, highlighting the economic and social impact community owned initiatives can achieve in Wales could play a key role in drawing people back home to play their part in growing their local communities. The next step is growing the rate of social enterprises and community ownership models across Wales, and in turn increasing the employment opportunities within them.

Where do we go from here?

Growing ambition across Wales is key, but what barriers remain? As panellists agreed, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, each community is different, with different needs and therefore you cannot duplicate efforts. However, sharing insights and coming together as a sector and inspiring one another is key to overcoming barriers, argued Davies. The People’s Economy has been exploring how to grow social enterprises without overly relying on the capacity of a few passionate individuals, making organisations more sustainable. Silvester highlighted the need to ‘drill down on what works internally in terms of capacity, skills and knowledge… who in the community has capacity to support new social enterprises?’ These considerations can improve the rate of community owned assets in Wales. 

There is a need to be flexible and open to novel investment opportunities while ensuring that the economy grows for the people of Wales, not just for growth’s sake

Policy challenges remain a key barrier to the growth of the sector. Peisley explains that successive calls to the Welsh Government to establish a right to buy have not yet materialised in policy development. The IWA’s own research displays that Welsh communities are the least empowered in Britain and called for a major shake-up of community policy in Wales which will bring it up to speed with Scotland and England. There was a call put to the IWA during the event regarding how the sector can be financially supported to become less reliant on grants. It is vital to continue the collective campaigning work across the community ownership sector and third sector organisations such as the IWA working within the Community ownership Group continuing to strongly encourage and urge the Welsh Government to enact policy changes to empower Welsh communities.

Going further, Dr Jones stressed, ‘there is no silver bullet… we have to explore all possible options and use them together’, cautiously highlighting the potential future role foreign direct investment (FDI) could play within the social enterprise sector. There is a need to be flexible and open to novel investment opportunities while ensuring that the economy grows for the people of Wales, not just for growth’s sake. In this way, redirecting FDI towards the community ownership sector could build resilience and lessen reliance on grants. Events like this facilitate important conversations, where people across north Wales can raise their voices and be heard, contributing to vital conversations about how Wales can achieve a fairer, more sustainable economy. We look forward to our next collaborative event with our partners at Bangor University. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer. If you want to support our work tackling Wales’ key challenges, consider becoming a member.

Lydia Godden is the IWA's Economic Policy and Research Officer

Also within Politics and Policy