Iain Scott, 27 August 2020

Which is worse? A “banker-led” recovery? Or an economist-led recovery? It’s an unsavory toss-up.

But the Scottish Government’s recent Higgins report – expected to signpost Scotland’s economic recovery after the devastation of Covid-19 – suggests this is our Hobson’s choice.

Led by former banker Benny Higgins, the report was immediately slammed for barely mentioning small and medium enterprises – the beating heart of every economy. And for content apparently compiled by strategists and suits who enjoy corporate salaries, paid holidays and pensions.

For the 98 per cent of Scottish businesses who employ fewer than 50 people – and are currently fighting for every breath – this is a world away from their new Covid normal.

Dr Ernesto Sirolli, who advises governments globally on community-led growth, says businesses start in bedrooms, not boardrooms. The same principle applies to economic growth. The answers will be found on the ground, in communities. Not in boardrooms or the back of chauffeur-driven cars.

As director of Can Do Places, I’ve worked with communities across Scotland who have taken local economic growth into their own hands. Enterprising people from Alexandria in West Dunbartonshire to Crieff, Leuchars, Falkirk, Grangemouth and Peebles have seized the initiative to open collaborative co-working spaces in empty buildings including former shops,
offices, libraries and schools.

Like the Lebanese people in Beirut shoveling up the shattered glass of their lives or the quake-hit community of Wellington, New Zealand, mobilising emergency support for local people – they’re not waiting around for government to help, but rolling their sleeves up and getting on with it.

We call these entrepreneurs ‘community superheroes’ because they face immense obstacles. Including how to raise funds for their project, planning and building control issues, absentee property owners – and not being taken seriously.

Underlying this is a deep lack of understanding about co-working spaces and their economic and social value. Let me illuminate you.

Can Do Places has calculated that, if all 479 Scottish localities with more than 1,000 residents turned an empty building into a shared co-working space generating £500,000 in turnover (based on 10 entrepreneurs generating £50,000 each in sales), it would create almost £240 million of economic value for Scotland.

Is that not a spark worth supporting?

One thing is certain – a growing legion of empty offices will litter our already battered high streets as the pandemic takes its toll and workers stay home and local.

And yet our Can Do Places heroes fight daily bureaucracy, indifference and disdain. It’s not too late to listen to these doers and innovators – and to start Scotland’s recovery from the ground-up.

To make a start, we are asking the First Minister to create a new Scottish cabinet post – a Minister for Community-driven Entrepreneurship. This would cut across all government departments and start the conversations that are needed – in our local communities – to get Scotland back on its feet.

I am reminded of the mass observation project during World War II. Across Britain, people shared their stories of what was happening in their jobs, lives, communities – and thoughts. It was controversial. But invaluable in rebuilding the nation’s shattered economy.

If Scotland is to achieve a prized “wellbeing economy” – with human and planetary wellbeing prioritised over the financial profit of an elite minority – this approach is vital.

Bankers and economists have an important role to play. But they should follow, not lead.

Scotland’s recovery must be led by communities, for communities.