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“Going forward the focus should be on how we are going to approach recovery in terms of it being place, not organisation-led”


I founded thinkingplace 15 years ago and we have been working with places with all sorts of opportunities and challenges in helping them reimagine their role within the world and I guess, more critically, look at how they take themselves forward in terms of growth and prosperity and how they do that in a different way. At the heart of that is having a clear direction of travel for a place, which is not actually just the local authority’s perspective but the place’s direction of travel and a shared view on how it gets there.

To get to the appropriate mechanisms to help drive recovery, you first need to understand what is going to be important for economic recovery from the place we are now. That place is one of austerity, real economic challenge particularly for local authorities, and of course for economic development funding. For me, I think the general ethos of this has to be about doing things differently. Going forward the focus should be on how we are going to approach this in terms of recovery being place, not organisation-led.

People have connected to, and reconnected with, their places through the Covid-19 pandemic and we have to recognise that. Whether it is the indigenous population and residents, or whether it is to do with inward investment and the attraction of funding, places that do that need to get away from the organisation being at the heart of this and being place-led instead. The reason I say that is because as places we have to make the most of what we have got.

There are not necessarily going to be big handouts or big pieces of investment, so if we do not celebrate our assets and we do not make the most of everything we have, from our natural resource to the people and talent in our place, then how are we going to recover? That means making sure that talent, those people, are connected to the place and I would argue that the traditional mechanisms of local government are not going to be enough to achieve that even if they were better funded at the moment.

We have to widen place leadership: we have to bring in other skills, different insights, more support, particularly from the likes of the private sector, the third sector and education. I look at some of the work we have done recently with Harrogate where we have been on a journey. They have a Place Leadership Group which has been fundamental, working alongside the local authority in helping economic recovery by giving advice, and on that group you have a whole different tapestry of skill sets, contacts and knowledge.

Another important point that has to go with this in terms of economic recovery is collaborative action. We had collaboration when we had crisis, and we have to have collaboration when moving forward. The stakeholders must have ‘skin in the game’ for economic recovery in helping the place a) see the value of doing this b) to put a lot in to making it actually happen.

It is not sustainable to sit back and expect the current mechanisms to deliver. So that means things like creating ambassadors for the place, an informal coming together of people, because if you want job creation/retention that generally is about externalisation of the place, its assets and opportunities. Who better to do that than the people in the place; who it matters to, who know it best, and who have the contacts and networks?

Of course, local government has an absolutely huge role to play. It has got a place leadership role – and if we are not brave enough to do things differently in our places then we are not going to get very far. The local authorities have enough to do at the moment in terms of supporting businesses, administering grants and the statutory things they have to deliver. Why not, alongside that, facilitate and enable unleashing of the energy, resources, time and talent of the place by widening leadership, creating more collaborations and doing that more informally? It can move more dynamically, and be an added extra alongside local government.

John Till is Director of thinkingplace, a member of the Institute of Economic Development. John was a panellist on the IED’s “What are the most appropriate mechanisms for economic recovery, and what is the role of local government within that?” webinar on 5th November

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