“WATER privatisation looks little more than an organised rip-off” declared a headline in the Financial Times on 10 September. The paper’s City Editor, Jonathan Ford, reported: “Bills are rising to fund massive shareholder payouts.”
That one of the basic essentials of life has become the means of transferring wealth into the hands of the few illustrates, perhaps, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s observation, in the Commission on Economic Justice’s interim report, that the UK’s economic model is “broken”. During privatisation in 1989, the political argument was that there was no alternative. But, as water bills rise, together with pay awards for chief executives of these companies, as of so many others, people feel that there must be.
The “brokenness” of which the Archbishop speaks can impinge most heavily in the area of personal debt. The Archbishop has strongly promoted credit unions, and David Barclay, who founded the Church Credit Champions Network (CCCN) in 2014, believes that every congregation should be encouraged to join one.
“It’s fairly straightforward,” he says. “You don’t need to go the whole hog, like the Murston Community Bank, and actually bring the credit union into the church building. Some churches have a weekly point where people can come in and just find out more, with volunteers who can help them to fill out membership forms and loan-application forms. In some churches, people can also make savings deposits.”
The CCCN, now known as the Just Finance Network, has been helping to train people as “signposters”, who, while not being qualified to give formal debt advice, “can have a conversation with someone who is in financial difficulties, tell them what their options are, and point them in the right direction”. Being trained as a debt adviser is a bigger undertaking, because that is a regulated activity, but Christians against Poverty (CAP) and Community Money Advice can help.
The most important thing, Mr Barclay says, is for churches “to take the time to listen to their own members, and, ideally, also to people in the community, and open up a conversation before they leap in.”
MANY churches and individual churchpeople are already careful to ensure that their savings and pensions are banked and invested ethically, as promoted by the organisers of the annual Good Money Week, but what else can be done to help to repair the economy?
Giving credit: Murston Community Bank’s promotional leafletJay Tompt, a social entrepreneur who runs the REconomy Centre, Totnes, in Devon, recommends that people ask themselves: “What can we do in our community? How can we begin to be more resilient, more inclusive? How can we begin to meet more of our own needs, including food, locally?”
To create the conditions for new economic relationships and models, he says, “We need to mobilise the social and financial capital that’s already here. In any community, the most important thing for creating the conditions for change is to create opportunities for people to get together and become acquainted and, eventually, collaborate on things.”
The Church, he suggests, has many under-used buildings that during the week could be “incubators” where young entrepreneurs and fledgling companies could work, paying less than the market rent, or no rent at all. Another possibility could be hosting a forum in which start-ups could pitch to potential investors.
“Someone might say, ‘I’ll loan you £1000,’ or ‘I’ll give you £100,’ or ‘I’ll help you with your business plan or introduce you to somebody,’ or just ‘I’ll give you a hug because I like what you’re doing,’” he says. “It all helps to catalyse the new kind of culture we need, and it also creates community cohesion.”
The secretary-general of Co-operatives UK, Ed Mayo, says that people should start by thinking about how they spend their money as consumers. “Pretty much everything in the economy now has an ethical alternative,” he says. “For instance, there is a phone co-op that is an ethical pioneer in the telecoms sector. And you can switch to Co-operative Energy, or one of the more ethical suppliers. It may require a little more effort, because you’re looking a bit further and asking questions, but there is every opportunity out there to put our values into practice.”
Next, he says, we should think about what we can do as congregations. “Values-based businesses, like co-operatives, bring life to a community, and engaging with them is a way of giving energy and momentum to what a congregation is doing already. There are co-ops, such as Daily Bread, in Northampton, all around the country. It’s a sector that’s full of colour and light.”
The deputy chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, Nick Temple, says that almost all the products we buy regularly can now be sourced from social enterprises. “By buying socially, you are using your spending power directly to bring about positive change. Your coffee can create sustainable jobs for the homeless, your chocolate can empower women cocoa farmers in Ghana, and your soap can create opportunities for the disabled in the UK.”
Nicola LangEnriching community: Totnes residents discuss ideas in one of the town’s local entrepreneur forumsIncreasingly, he says, people are making positive changes, by taking ownership of assets that matter to them and their community, from pubs and post offices to football clubs and energy projects. Each one benefits the community in which it operates, keeps money in the area, and brings people together.
Mr Mayo suggests that congregations consider starting a co-op, to meet local needs or to provide opportunities. “Renewable energy is a good example of something people can do together that you may not be able to do on your own. And, where churches have put solar panels on their roofs, the building becomes an exemplar for our values. It’s such a good way to walk the talk.”
A report from Plunkett Foundation, on the potential of rural places of worship, finds that social enterprises and community co-ops can not only help to make the local church more sustainable, through the income that they can generate, but also benefit the wider community, by providing essential services.
”Nearly all of the communities we’ve worked with have become stronger through the process of setting something up,” the Foundation’s general manager, James Alcock, says. “Even those that already looked strong from the outside, that are large and have access to a great range of skills and money to invest, very often say: ‘We thought we knew our neighbours, but we didn’t, and now we are much more aware of the issues and challenges some of them are facing’ — these could be related to transport or health care or poverty — ‘and we can begin to work out how to tackle them together.’”
There are always people with talent in a congregation, Mr Mayo says. “In my local renewable-energy co-op, we have someone who works for an oil company in the day, and then does the modelling for a clean, green future for the co-op down the pub in the evenings.”
A LOCAL currency can be another powerful means of keeping money in local circulation (Feature, 28 October 2016). The chief executive of Bristol Pound, Ciaran Munday, explains: “If I, as a trader, support other local traders, in the long run that will be better for me, because it maintains the local money supply, which is my future revenue. On the other hand, if I spend sterling with a national chain that sucks the money out of the area, it means there’s less money locally to be spent with me in the future. The poorest communities in Bristol have got very leaky economies — and that’s why they remain poor.”
Mr Munday hopes that the firm will soon be able to start issuing zero-interest loans in Bristol pounds to businesses in the area that need finance. He is keen to pass on the lessons that he and his colleagues have learnt in setting up a local currency now regarded as the country’s most successful. “We offer support to any other region that wants to do the same thing, and we share our technology. We try to open-source everything.”
One of the currency’s founders is a priest in Bristol, the Revd Dr Chris Sunderland. He advises: “The most important thing is the gathering of a team, and being very realistic about what you can do, and how you’re going to do it.”
Traditionally, perhaps, Christians in this country have tended to focus on the spiritual state of our nation and the material well-being of people in far-flung countries. Mr Tompt calls for a different emphasis: “The best thing we in Britain can do for the rest of the world is to get our own house in order.
“The kind of economic system that is making life hard on folks in the developing world derives from the economics that has its source here. It’s our consumerism, our investments in huge corporations, that’s the problem.”
A former City of London practitioner, Sir Hector Hants, a trustee of Just Finance, argues that “healing the broken economy” is a prerequisite for improving society’s spiritual health, and that the Church has a crucial part to play in this.
“Ultimately, real change will only come about through the democratic process, and the Church can certainly play a role in putting the broken economy at the centre of the public policy process. The Church as an institution needs to act, and influential individuals in the Church should join the policy debate in a thoughtful manner; but, underpinning everything, all of us in the Church need to lead by example and do all we can.”