“We can earn our own keep” Growing a grassroots economy in Sheffield

In Sheffield, Heeley Trust has spent 25 years stepping in where the market and state had left – helping to create a healthy, prosperous, community-led local economy. Meet our campaign leader Andy Jackson.

My name is Andy Jackson. I work for Heeley Trust. Heeley Trust is a charity, we’re locally led. We were set up 25 years ago to change the fortunes and the future of our place.

We’re in an inner city, ex-steel working community a mile from the centre of Sheffield. And we were facing real economic decline, housing clearance, issues of school dereliction, shopping centre failure, and a landscape that was abandoned by the State. We were local people who came together to say we’ve had enough, we don’t want this, we want change for our neighbourhood. The Trust was established to be the agent of that change: to take on contracts, manage the delivery of services, raise grants, and to think about the whole community and the needs of everyone.

Parks, bikes, health: What we doing

Heeley People’s Park

We started with taking on a park, an abandoned landscape. We took on the leases, raised funds and developed a beautiful landscape and habitat. Now we animate it with events, and we bring people together, so it’s become an asset – it’s at the heart of our community.

We had to fund that, so we took on ownership of buildings, and developed workspace and creative spaces. For example, there’s a space called Sum Studios that we’ve regenerated from totally derelict and filled it with a community of businesses. That creates an economy. Importantly, that economy pays rent, and we recycle that rent into the maintenance of that landscape.

We’ve created a new community of businesses that have a ripple-out impact on the economy and the local shops. They help us to do events and create and make things, they’ve worked with the school next door. But most importantly, we’re not-for-profit, so anything that we raise, we’re able to reinvest in local action. And we’ve created a closed-loop economy. We’ve proved the ownership of bricks and mortar is powerful, and it can sustain long-term change led by local people.

The other thing that we try and do is that we’re running businesses, so we have an independent mixed income, through businesses that also have a social impact. For example, our social enterprise bike workshop also trains young people. It has created a load of local jobs and the mechanics are all local people, really well trained – some of the best mechanics in Sheffield.

We also work really closely with our GP network, because health and wellbeing is about prevention. We have a health system that waits until things are broken and then seeks to fix them. But we have a view that actually a really good neighbourhood probably will tackle a lot of health issues before they even arise. When people feel connected and involved, they’re active, exercising, engaged in art, creativity, you’re leading a good life. That’s the fundamentals of health and wellbeing.

Andy with New Local’s Adam Lent in A Different Gear bike shop

Three things in our way

There are a number of challenges to getting this work done. And some of them are really big. Probably the most profound challenge that we face is we’re genuinely in an area of market failure. The private sector have walked away from doing some of the things that we’re doing, which is fine. That’s what we’re here for – to step in where the market fails. But unless you have an economy or a policy environment that recognises that and supports action to overcome market failure, you’re going to struggle, and right now we have an economic policy environment that says things come down from the top.

Economic infrastructure is about superfast broadband, railways, motorways. It’s about us – the government – in one big contract to a prime contractor. And we’ll deliver a massive project there. But the economic infrastructure that’s not being developed is the kind of nuanced, local, community, grassroots-led economy.

So our biggest challenge is that money doesn’t trickle down. Levelling up won’t work unless we create money, confidence and assets in the grassroots. And it’s an enormous challenge to overcome the policy deficit and the leadership deficit there.

An artist in one of the Heeley Trust-run spaces

The second challenge is we have a patronage system for funding. And it’s a competitive system. So instead of getting local, talented, powerful organisations to work together, we make them fight – for crumbs, frankly. I think it’s one out of every seven lottery bids that gets funded. And everybody has a celebration, and that’s great. But the other six were probably really good projects too. And they spent an awful lot of time for free to fail. And that’s very challenging.

The final thing is, most of the services we deliver to local people are contracted by local government, and local government does not contract at full cost. So we’re constantly subsidising project delivery. And we’re constantly at war with their bureaucracy. Because what they don’t do is pour down enabling contracts, and enough resources to do the job. They pour down tiny amounts of funding that aren’t enough, with unrealistic expectations of outcomes. We should be measuring our outcomes in terms of how many tea bags we use, not how many boxes we’ve ticked.

And they make you then bid every year for the privilege of doing that bureaucracy over and over again. We have a contract that we’re 10 years into, we’ve never underperformed in 10 years on our contract outcomes. And yet, every year, we have to bid again.

Joining the campaign for community power

I’m part of We’re Right Here because I really want things to change, because I’ve been in my role for 20 years, and we know that things aren’t changing, and we need them to, and we can see how things could be different and better. I think that organising the way we hand down power, and formalising a structure that requires it, is the only way that it will happen.

Some of the events organised by Heeley Trust

We’ve seen rhetoric about double devolution, and I saw exactly how far that got. It didn’t devolve down here, we were left on our own, just the same as before. We need to structurally hand power down and make sure it happens. And that will take more than rhetoric. That’s why we need We’re Right Here.

Community power to me, is the State getting out from under my feet, generously recognising that this community is capable of doing it itself. It’s not poor; it’s rich with talent and people. There’s just no resources. They could give us some of the resources and get out from under our feet and enable us to do asset-based community development. We’re not talking about a deficit and a problem, we’re talking about this place being great. That’s what community power would be to me.

If you unlock the latent talent in our neighbourhoods we wouldn’t need Levelling Up. We wouldn’t need a redistributive economy. We can earn our own keep. That’s what community power is about. We’re independent and doing things ourselves.