There are few things less interesting than a barren, sun-baked and depressing car park. And trust me, I live in an airport town and car parks are something we know a bit about. But here’s a story that suggests they could be something more.
Cardigan is a small town on the Welsh coast. It’s a bit out of the way, and with the loss of some key employers over the years, the town had fallen on hard times. Residents wanted to attract more visitors to the town to boost local businesses, but the council run car parks were quite expensive.
A few years ago a large piece of derelict land came up for sale in the town centre, and naturally a national supermarket chain had plans for it. Local residents had other ideas – enough money was leaving the community through supermarkets and chain stores already. More locally owned businesses would keep that money circulating within the town. So the residents organised a petition, and then began raising money to buy the land themselves. A share offer brought in hundreds of investor-members, and a hard-won bank loan secured the site for the community in 2010.
The campaign was run by the cooperative 4CG, which is considerably easier to spell than the full Welsh name Cymdeithas Cynnal a Cefnogi Cefn Gwlad (the Society to Sustain and Support the Rural Countryside). They opened a car park on the site, with cheaper prices that brought more visitors to the town. It was soon turning over £1,000 a week, which was ploughed back into supporting local business.
Since then, the funds from the car park have paid for a whole series of new business spaces and ventures. Unused retail spaces and derelict buildings around the site have reopened as an eco-shop, a maritime museum, and a day-care centre. 4CG have since bought the old courthouse to open it up as a community venue. The closed down police station has been turned into offices. New workshop spaces host a basket weaver, a carpenter and a furniture restorer.
4CG has also helped to fund wi-fi masts in the town centre, bringing faster internet connections to businesses and to visitors. They have opened a street market, taken over the town’s shuttered public toilets, and are improving green spaces. There are plans for hydro power on a nearby river.
Yes, it’s reliant on people driving into town, which is unavoidable in rural areas. Nevertheless, the story of Cardigan’s car park is a great example of relocalisation and the importance of locally owned business. If that car park were privately owned, the profits would all be spent privately too. By creating a reliable shared revenue stream that benefits a wider membership, the whole town centre has benefited. It has snowballed into the regeneration of the local economy.
I think 4CG is also a small scale demonstration of something that could be much bigger, as Katherine Trebeck and I explore in our book The Economics of Arrival. Imagine if the wider economy worked this way too, with local communities owning energy companies, their own train and bus services, shopping centres, or markets. It would be an economy where everyone had a stake, rather than one where profits all vanish into the pockets of the richest. It would be neither private enterprise nor government control, but a cooperative model where business is owned by and for the people who depend on it as customers or as employees.
It would be economic democracy, and it looks a lot like the future to me.
- Hiut Jeans is another great story out of Cardigan.