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Economic development: why our discipline is essential for the North


Economic development is one of the few ways local authorities can create wealth-enhancing opportunities for their towns, cities and regions. This goes beyond economic wealth to building social capital and improving the well-being of residents and businesses alike. 

As economic development professionals, we can shape and lead our local areas in a way few other professions can. Most of the focus of economics and policy is targeted at cities and large towns, but there is a bigger story to tell and a broader case to be made for the importance of our discipline.

My experience across Yorkshire has taught me the immense value that economic development brings to the North of England, whether in market towns or rural areas, by improving employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. To illustrate this, I will unpack two less-talked-about aspects of why economic development is vital for the North of England.

Firstly, let’s unpack the importance of perception because perception is everything. How a geography is perceived is the foundation upon which we build. This is as relevant for regenerating town centres as for internationally marketing a region for inward investment. 

To illustrate how crucial perception is to our economy, imagine an alien was sent on a mission to monitor the earth's economy in 2006 and again in 2009. The alien would have visited first in 2006 and counted the number of businesses, working-age population, offices, the number of computers, and land available for agriculture and industry. When the alien returned in 2009, they would have done the same research and found little material change. The alien would have reported only the most minor global economic changes in this period and would have used the word ‘stable’. However, the GVA and GDP data would have suggested otherwise, as would the shift in media narrative and people’s opinions on the street. The 2008 financial crash is an extreme example but highlights how our perceptions of the economy are far more potent than the ‘bricks and mortar’ reality. 

Economic development is the single most powerful tool for shaping and controlling the narrative of how people perceive their local economy. This matters just as much for a rural employment opportunity as it does for a scheme to regenerate a town centre. 

Regeneration projects, business support and inward investment are key means of creating a narrative of progress and collaboration that uplifts people’s perceptions of their local economy. Small changes in the narrative begin to add up, and then they compound over time. A small event or place marketing campaign can lay the foundations for massive shifts in a population’s perception of their local area over an extended period.

Creating a positive perception and a narrative of progress is essential when working with small business groups. Enterprises and businesses in the North can sometimes slip into a stereotypical downbeat narrative, especially when towns or industrial estates witness periods of churn or high vacancy rates. This negative mindset can quickly impact the perceptions of residents and visitors alike and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Small actions from economic development professionals can create and promote a counter narrative, such as pop-up opportunities in town centres or the chance to develop more energy-efficient units on an industrial estate. Perception is everything, and we have the power to influence that narrative and drive a sense of progress and improvement in our local economies.

Secondly, let’s examine the case for economic leadership and where it comes from. If you ask most people to draw an image of ‘leadership’, they tend to show someone in a suit or uniform giving instructions, often in front of a crowd. This classic image of an authoritarian leader is sometimes the case, but it needs more nuance, depth and complexity to portray what it means to lead our economies and geographies. 

Authentic leadership looks a lot like service. But what would it mean to serve your local economy? Well, the concept of servant leadership gives us some insight. A servant leader acts to address needs. It is someone who leads and drives change, not by issuing commands but by seeking to support, encourage or fulfil a need. This leadership model is highly relevant at a local or regional level.

Let’s take the concept further and apply it to economic development practice. Servant leadership may look like a business advisor encouraging a start-up and providing networking opportunities. It might look like a regeneration professional working alongside a town council to address vacancy rates. It could also look like an inward investment officer working with a planning department and a developer to deliver a scheme that profits both the developer and the community. 

The IED’s call, in Grow Local, Grow National, for economic development to become a statutory responsibility is essential for delivering long-term, meaningful change in our economy. The role of economic development in leading and shaping perceptions of our local economies is vital and cannot be bettered by any other discipline. We need regenerative towns and cities that thrive, generate pride and are deeply loved by their residents and businesses. The role in shaping perception and leading our local economies rests on our shoulders as members of the IED, and cementing the position of economic development in the public sector gives us the confidence to continue driving that change.

Joe Russell is Senior Economic Development Officer at North Yorkshire Council, and a member of the IED.