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Sustainability: is it time to view economic development through a different lens?


The General Election campaign has been positioned, by many commentators and politicians from across the spectrum, as an opportunity for renewal and refresh. A chance to seize the economic opportunities that lie beyond the seemingly immoveable barrier that is Brexit.

However, for those who have worked with and within government for a long time, or those who are a close study of economic development know, the reality is often more vanilla. The destination rarely changes, even if the method of getting there might be subtly different.

Will it be different this time and do economic development professionals within local and regional government have an opportunity to be at the forefront of that change? The answer is yes, providing we are willing and capable of seeing beyond the narrow view that growth needs to remain the panacea of sub-regional economic policy.

I can’t count how many times I have come across – or even been involved in drafting – an economic strategy and felt that both the ambition it sets out, or the tools which will be used to deliver it, could apply to most places in the UK.

Granted the challenges faced across many sub-regional economies are broadly similar, especially across the North which continues to be dominated by low skill levels and structural underfunding in infrastructure. But that does not mean that the way we choose to approach them must be the same. It can be different, it can be more locally-driven, and it can also help us address our most fundamental challenge of this generation. That is the need to move towards a more sustainable economic future. It is not growth at all costs, nor is growth the best measure of the success of a place.

The professional and political debate is catching up with this new reality, but perhaps not quick enough. It is time the economic development profession took a lead and began to shape the agenda. We need a new paradigm for sub-national economic development. One which addresses three key issues around growth, inclusion and sustainability, but redefines the primary lens through which everything else is viewed.

We have a choice. We can seek to continue to try (and largely fail) to balance the three, or as has been the case for many years, view inclusion and sustainability through the lens of growth. The way we approach these three factors will be defined by which one you start with. If we continue to view growth as the principle lens, inclusion and sustainability will be retrofitted around the need to achieve growth.

Barring a few isolated examples, I suggest that has largely failed as an approach to sub-national economic policy. Jobs get created, but people fail to fully benefit. Roads get built to unlock ‘growth’, and the quid pro quo is to try to minimise the impact on our natural capital.

It is time to view economic development differently. If we begin to shape future industrial strategy at a sub-national level by first looking at it through the sustainability lens, then we begin to see an opportunity for renewal and refresh. It opens the potential to address those universal social and economic challenges in a different way and could also provide a new framework for local communities to begin to take a greater sense of control and ownership through a redefined approach to devolution.

There is a growing movement which proposes redefining industrial policy through a ‘green revolution’ which also seeks to address rising inequality. This has particularly been championed in the UK by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). As the NEF defines it, it is about creating a new generation of jobs in the industries and infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis and taking a new approach to running our economy that guarantees decent work, greater ownership and economic democracy, with a central purpose of putting people and planet first.

Its distractors will say that some places, which lag in job creation, investment or employment, simply do not have the luxury of taking this view. They argue that the focus should be on more growth and more jobs first and foremost. After all, you can’t have inclusive growth without growth. However, in many cases the meaning of what inclusive growth is has been lost, or at best has been played lip-service to.

I would argue that addressing regional inequalities is entirely complementary and consistent with adopting a new set of social and economic reforms. If you bring people with you.

There is every reason that the sub-national government structures we currently have in place can lead the charge, thereby avoiding years of unnecessary naval-gazing and questions over economic spatial geography which blighted the end of the Regional Development Agencies and the introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities.

If a proper and long-term devolution settlement is agreed by government, there is no reason why these sub-regional bodies cannot shape themselves as genuine agents of change. They should, by their very raision d’etre, be mission-orientated organisations focused on the ‘grand challenges’ we face. They have it in their gift to move beyond narrow and outdated thematic norms and redefine cost-benefit models which enable a broader view on the merits of public investment. By taking this strategic leadership role, it will complement the work of local authority partners who are best placed to drive, from the bottom up, a focus on community wealth-building.

This is what the approach to growth and inclusion could be if we looked at them through the lens of sustainability. This is genuinely the opportunity for renewal and refresh in our approach to economic development. This is genuine change. The upcoming election will show whether we have the leadership in place to achieve it.

Mark Lynam is a Board Member of the Institute of Economic Development, and Director of Transport, Housing and Infrastructure in Sheffield City Region’s Executive Team. On 4th December 2019 the IED is hosting its Annual Conference 2019, ‘The Challenge of Change – economic strategies for a new era’