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Regardless of the choice and inter-connectedness today’s world offer us, local remains important


In talking with my 102-year-old grandma the clearer conversations for her were almost always those of several decades ago – times as a child; being taken out the grammar school when she was old enough to earn; wartime and post-war stories of rationing; the different target audience of the six playhouses in her small Lancashire mill-town. The perception I had, confirmed by her, was that life was local; work was local; shopping was local – apart from the occasional trip to Manchester; and holidays were local – Morecambe, until she wanted to avoid her parents so ventured east to Scarborough!

As the decades of grandma’s life have progressed, technology and choice have transformed all lives, and with it the economy of her town, county and the wider country and world have all changed. Morecambe is now more of a day out. There aren’t six playhouses open anymore either – one remembered by the name of the bus stop by which it used to stand, one a pub. Whilst the grammar school is now housing, continuation of education and skills for young people in the town remains an issue. And whilst there remains a manufacturing core to employment, there is a much a broader mix of roles and jobs, including in regenerated mills and as people commute out to neighbouring employment centres, towns and cities. 

Regardless of the choice and inter-connectedness today’s world offer us, local remains important. A visit to the market, the mix of shops in the town, the identity of the town through its thriving sports clubs, and speaking with people from the town confirms this. In broad terms the town, like all others, is unique, whilst competing and complementing others in the wider area and economic world.

In reflecting on the IED’s Grow Local, Grow National, one is drawn to the importance of local in an economic development context – one that recognises and builds upon inherent strengths of a place and its people whilst seeking to address weaknesses. This isn’t always as easy to do and describe as perhaps it might, or should, be. A challenge of regional and sub-regional strategies was that of role between places – for instance where a dominant centre didn’t exist, who was bigger – which was more important than the other distracted conversations or resulted in vanilla plans that didn’t do much for anyone. Today the statutory Local Plan process, ideal for describing and delivering a local vision for economic development, is lamentably disjointed and dysfunctional across the country.

Having worked in the local policy environment I have often seen the sense of identity being so great (or intense) that it has got in the way of the broader themes that one was seeking to achieve by working together. There may have been no industrial strategy, regional or local plan in my grandma’s working life, but there was a collective purpose and understanding – one that the mills and factories of her town were producing alongside those of neighbouring towns – for a greater good.

A statutory economic development function, driven locally has much to offer. Yet, of itself, it won’t be a silver bullet unless the statutory requirement is embedded within existing roles and functions. Today there are other common themes, opportunities and challenges recognised and understood across the country around which economic development could, and perhaps should, harness. Over 300 local authorities have declared climate change emergencies in recent years, for example. In my time at National Highways it was never difficult to engage locally because the Strategic Road Network of trunk roads and motorways connects every part of England directly or indirectly, and as such a strategic conversation was to be had to ensure operation and future delivery supports local place-based growth. Environment and connectivity are two themes where ‘grow local’ needs to understand the approach of ‘grow national’.

As such, to make things work, local needs to understand national, and national needs to understand local. National, sub-national and regional bodies need to reflect on their role in enabling and supporting places to function, such that together meaningful plans and policies can be developed and implemented.  

A National Industrial Strategy, as promoted by Grow Local, Grow Nationalwould be a great place to start, one that presents public bodies with a framework within which to work in their strategic planning, whether this be sectoral or spatial. Allied to this proper reform of Local Plans, and the resourcing of Local Plans, to enable a fit-for-purpose planning system at the local level.  A statutory economic development function should inform this, ideally at a strategic level between the national and local, that can distinguish and disaggregate those local strengths and weaknesses, whilst setting them in a wider economic frame. To do any of this we need to take planning more seriously and prioritise it. Funding streams on their own, declarations of intent on their own, will not achieve as much as they could without it.

Should I last that long, I’ll be 102 in 2080. It would be nice to think that grandma’s town will be one that has benefited from a planned approach to shaping, addressing weaknesses in and growing its economy. Empowered by Grow Local, Grow National, it is up to us as a professional body to do what we can to make this happen.

Simon Emery is a Regional Director at AECOM and a member of the IED. Prior to this he led economic development policy work at National Highways and has worked in a number of local authority economic development roles.