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The case for new approaches to local economic renewal


The Budget earlier this month gave local leadership teams a lot to do. Participation in recovery plans, stewarding town and city deal funding, establishing freeports, preparing for Levelling Up, community renewal bids or even civil service relocations, alongside the day job of managing continuing reductions in discretionary local services, is a stretch for any place-based leadership team. And it absolutely has to be done.

However, my paper, ‘Economic renewal in the shadow of a pandemic: a personal perspective’, produced for the IED-led Commission for Local Economic Renewal (CLER), presents the case that this ‘bended knee’ subservience to the assertive ‘Big State’ of post-pandemic, post-Brexit Britain is not going to be sufficient to deliver successful place-making.

The disruptive shocks of Covid-19 and Brexit, and their highly differentiated local implications, present an opportunity, and may even require, redressing the shortcomings of piecemeal, partial orthodoxies epitomised by the crowded agendas handed down by the March Budget.

So, what might ‘good’ place-based economic strategy look like in the 2020s? The first part of the CLER paper presents a framework for thinking about how a mix of familiar and new contexts is impacting on specific places and how familiar and new frameworks can be deployed to manage them.

Many of the grand challenges of the 2010s have not fundamentally changed – for instance, digitalisation and automation; decarbonisation and green issues; attracting, retaining, developing young talent in the face of acute demographic challenges. Rather these trends are magnified and accelerated by Covid-19. At the same time, however, new perspectives on issues like density and agglomeration, ever-deepening globalisation, the importance of public health and foundation sectors, even presumptions about the scale and scope of government intervention are fundamentally new contexts that will determine place-based outcomes well into the 2020s.

For local leadership teams, there continues to be strong arguments for putting effort into understanding what local evidence is telling us, strengthening collaborative arrangements between major role players, and building pipelines of shovel-ready investment propositions. However, planning and management increasingly needs to include tools and techniques fit for crisis management and turnaround purposes, for higher than hitherto levels of uncertainty and volatility, with greater attention to public health, inclusivity and broadly-based wellbeing. Vision and values remain central to the identity of places and to defining how they wish to progress – but the plans for getting there need to be much more contingent, flexible and able to accommodate a wider range of game-changing scenarios.

The paper, therefore, offers an agenda that local leaders should ensure they are driving. These will make the most of the menu being required of them by government, whilst also positioning their cities, towns and communities for the post-Covid, post-Brexit period.

1. Refresh local leadership teams. Spend some time considering scenarios for and approaches to difficult intractable issues like the values and principles that will inform your recovery priorities, stewardship of place, address inequalities and injustice, rebuild local trust and enthusiasm. Do not solely focus on bidding and managing the latest tranche of UK government largesse.

2. Build an evidence-informed consensus on what you want your cities, towns and communities to be known for. Underpin strategic plans with your solutions to the prior questions in point #1 – looking outwards and considering your places’ national, regional and perhaps global significance. Even if ‘battening down the hatches’ and ‘holding on to what we’ve got’ strategies are the best that can be achieved in the short term, development should have some sort of positive rationale and ambitions.

3. Collect and translate local data into rich intelligence which makes local expertise and insight crucial to national and other external role players. Recognise evidential gaps and non-traditional data sources as well as traditional available aggregates. Observatories and other intelligence capabilities need to be increasingly tasked with delivering real-time policy analysis and decision-taking options for decision-makers.

4. Mobilise financing, resources and capabilities for intervening effectively – including advocacy, technical bidding and delivery management work for achieving government support, programme and project investment.

5. Adopt flexible, adaptive decision-making and delivery management processes open to experimentation and challenge. Places are going to be faced with rapidly changing uncertainties, events outside their control, whose impacts are going to be unpredictable. There will be local economic and probably further global shocks – health, climate change, political, and in other domains too. Better future strategies will be live, evolutionary, contingency-based scenario plans rather than typical pre-pandemic blueprints.

6. Refresh thinking about your places’ ‘space’. City and town centres need to be redesigned and rebooted in the face of online retail pressures, increased home working, and impact of public health regimes on leisure and other collective roles towns traditionally played. However, ‘space’ means more than this in an age of social distancing. Housing density, access to parks and green breakout areas, how workplaces are organised will all have major consequences for post-pandemic models of successful urban living.

7. Seek to achieve the highest levels of quality and affordability of digital infrastructures and services. The flip side of remodelling space is how and the extent to which places put smart, future cities digital eco-systems into practice. From a universal premium on safe and sustainable transport, mobility, logistics and digital health systems to more nuanced local e-commerce platforms and support for digital skills, most places should seek radically improved digital performance.

8. Consider the impacts of post-pandemic ‘new normals’ on different populations. Places need to look behind aggregates to shape policy. Increased health risks for the elderly and those with underlying conditions or ‘Long-Covid’, decreased career pathways for those at risk of automation, increasing struggles for young people early-career labour market entry, to in-poverty household cash-flow will play out differently within and across different places. Without proactive, sustained intervention, evidence suggests inequalities will widen post-Covid and Brexit. How this is mitigated and redressed locally is a key test for place-based leaders.

9. Agree contingency plans for major decreases in demand as big government transfers are withdrawn. Big government has sustained demand with schemes like furlough and business support. These will most likely be withdrawn prior to full recovery of household incomes and business confidence. Circular economy, local employment initiatives, and support for community activism may be crucial in enabling local demand and supply systems to remain resilient over the medium term.

‘Economic renewal in the shadow of a pandemic’ is explicitly offered as a place-based recovery provocation and ‘starter for ten’. Government set out its top-down thinking in the Budget. Now is the time for local leadership teams to translate and add value to this for the future wellbeing of our cities, towns and communities.

David Marlow is CEO of Third Life Economics. David’s full paper for the IED-led Commission for Local Economic Renewal is available here.