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What’s the Big Deal? Post-event reflections


City and Growth Deals: Unpacking the steps for successful planning and delivery, held on 1st November, was the first joint event between the Institute of Economic Development (IED) and Economic Development Association Scotland (EDAS).

We agreed to stage this conference when a few things became clear: deals were very much ‘in vogue’, and the ‘art of the deal’ is becoming part of economic development discourse, they weren’t all the same, and that those involved in deals had much to share and learn.

The event was hosted at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ offices in Edinburgh which had the benefit of being right next to Haymarket station. And we got a good turnout. A full venue with attendees from all over the UK, from as far South as Devon and as far North as Inverness. As far as I’m aware that’s some sort of record. Ironically, whilst those travelling from South of the border had no problems, those of us travelling from only 40 miles away fell victim to train delays. To the best of my knowledge none of the deals – no doubt because of their ‘regional’ nature – are investing in rail infrastructure.

During the conference we heard from civil servants, academics, consultants, lawyers and various practitioners, all of whom had really valuable things to say about either the concept of deals as compared to the reality, or the thorny problems of making them work. To quote one speaker: “the negotiations never end”. Deals also represent a shift in the kind of relationship between government and local with the need to make a compelling ‘offer’ to the centre rather than an ‘ask’, becoming the norm. That requires a new mindset which some seem to have adopted more easily than others.

The deals seem to have also acted as a sort of weird combination of gaffer tape and WD40, helping to bind together some hitherto unlikely partnerships, and also lubricate negotiations that previously might have seized up. It’s clear that what has been included in deals is very different partly as a consequence of the participants, but also importantly as a result of the analysis and process that has been followed in their creation.

The differences in deals across the country, and the common issues that they were seeking to address, was more evident than any obvious difference under a devolved administration. With one notable exception; any new deals in Scotland were all expected to identify how they would deliver inclusive growth. Details of exactly how the deals were going to do that was a different question.

It became pretty clear during that day that whilst the quality of local data can often leave something to be desired, using the best available data in the design of deals was strongly advised. It’s also pretty clear that getting the governance right beforehand – daunting thought that can be – is far easier than trying to get it right after the deal is done. Again, to quote from someone close to a government source: “we’re much more interested in what it does than what it looks like”.

Although one has to await the customary event feedback, I’d say that the day was successful. I’d also say that it broke new ground, or perhaps went over some very old ground in reminding us yet again that across the country in a very uncertain time, economic development practitioners face the same problems and can gain great benefit from dialogue.

Richard Cairns is a Board Member of the Institute of Economic Development, and was Event Co-Chair of the EDAS-IED Conference

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