The Institute for Social Responsibility’s knowledge exchange program, “Imagining New Civic Interactions”, included a half-day symposium exploring the role of universities in their local communities on 8th January 2020. We were welcomed to the Tanhouse Community Centre in Skelmersdale by Cllr Ron Cooper, Tanhouse ward councillor and chair of West Lancashire Council’s cabinet working group on community wealth building. Dr Victoria Foster, Associate Director of ISR, chaired the event and explained its purpose and ISR’s role in its sponsorship.

Our first speaker was Neil McInroy, Chief Executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, who discussed the principles of community wealth building. Community wealth building is an approach to economic development that rather than looking for one-off contributions from central government, asks how can we do a better job of keeping the wealth we have in our community, in our community. A key idea of community wealth building is the idea of anchor institutions, large organisations such as councils, universities, and the NHS which are connected to place reviewing their purchasing policies and exploring how they could spend more locally and support the development of local suppliers.

Next was Cllr Dr Erica Lewis, Lecturer in Business and Management at Edge Hill University and the Leader of Lancaster City Council, who built on Neil’s comments to talk more broadly about how universities can contribute to their local community through both economic and civic engagement. In addition to its role as an anchor institution, Edge Hill University might also support local businesses to develop. Such resources as the Productivity and Innovation Centre help Lancashire based small to medium enterprises (SMEs) analyse big data to make future plans, and professional development programs like Leading Lancashire help SMEs develop organisational leaders and management skills. There is also an emerging role for universities in drawing together data, community wisdom and academic research applicable to a local area and working with residents and organisations to test and develop that knowledge locally. One of the challenges to this work is how it works to deepen democracy and increase the power of residents, rather than moving community conversations to academic settings.

Our final speaker was Professor Victor Merriam, Professor of Critical Performance Studies at Edge Hill University, who continued the discussion about how to deepen democracy. Drawing on his recent book Austerity and the Public Role of Drama and the manifesto he developed within it, Victor spoke about how we must (re)build institutions which respond to citizens and to start with those who have the most experience of injustice. In order to develop this responsiveness current processes of engagement must be deepened by (re)establishing practices of dialogue and most fundamentally by addressing the decades of disempowerment experienced by many communities.

There was both time for questions and discussion over lunch provided by the Birchwood Junk Food Cafe, a local organisation that works with intercepted food to reduce food poverty and food waste. The staff from Edge Hill University’s procurement team have gone away to explore how they might develop practices of community wealth building within the university. There was also discussion of the further development of service learning projects.

This symposium is the start of work on this project. The academic team who brought this event together, are now beginning work on the QR-SPF funded research project, Growing the Small Local Enterprise Sector in Skelmersdale. Two local women with working knowledge of the sector are collaborating with us to design the research questions and to collect and analyse data. The findings will feed into WLBC’s work on community wealth building.

Cllr Dr Erica Lewis
Lecturer in Business and Management
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Edge Hill University
Leader of Lancaster City Council

Dr Victoria Foster
ISR Associate Director (External Networking)
Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Edge Hill University