Knowing Your Place — that place you call home — Part 7

Pacemakers for Place Makers[Part 7 of a nine-part series]

What links Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge and Chilworth — and 96 other UK places?

All have at least one thing in common — an antidote to the perennial Whitehall worry about poor productivity.

Their Science Parks are the pacemakers for Place Makers — each battling in the front line to create new jobs, attract inward investment and breathe new life into communities and their local economies.

After years of agonising over a perceived ‘productivity paradox’, central policy makers responded to demands that ‘something must be done’. Place-based policies were enshrined in the UK’s industrial strategy published late last year and signalled a shift in the policy landscape. That shift, however, passed largely unnoticed by a Whitehall-centric media and most centrally-focused political actors. They should have asked ‘What is already being done’?

Central recognition may have arrived but the scope for developing place-based policies is, by definition, not rooted in Whitehall. It is action at the local level that best responds to local needs.

National governments have tried before to encourage this local focus. Gordon Brown in 2007/8 backed sub-national economic policy and a few years later Michael Heseltine was called in to create Local Enterprise Partnerships to replace the English Regional Development Agencies. The devolution agenda for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is now being re-fought in the context of Brexit and, within England, Metro Mayors and ‘City Deals’ attempt to pave the road towards greater local empowerment.

Now that a few of the brighter minds from across the political spectrum seem to accept the limited effectiveness of top-down centrally-planned directives, local leaders might reasonably expect greater legitimacy for local policy initiatives. Resistance, however, is deeply embedded — to a large extent rooted in the naïve economics that are still being taught despite the fresh thinking of Mazzucato and Raworth. The supposed ‘levers of power’ are largely disconnected — insensitive to local priorities. Even ignoring conflicting objectives and disparities between central Departments, the impacts of top-down policies on prosperity, growth, productivity and investment are, at best, marginal and, more-often, negative. But not so in places that have cracked on without waiting for permission.

Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge and Chilworth (and 96 other places) do not all owe their successes to any top-down diktat or even imaginative local governments. They do, however, share inspired local leaderships. Their leaders may not all have been supported by local universities, far-seeing enterprise or public-sector agencies — though in many cases those have certainly helped. What those leaders share is twofold: a long-term creative investment vision that rises above near-term politics, and a local environment that encourages collaboration across sectoral and administrative silos. In their hands ‘Ownership’ is far less important than ‘Outcomes’.

By the time of next month’s Intelligent Community Forum, six of the elected Metro Mayors in England will have completed their first year in office. These Metro Mayors have a remit to work across several urban and rural areas that may already have elected mayors of their own. Will this new layer of governance inject fresh life into places previously neglected? The naysayers cannot imagine that the results might justify the cost — or face the existential threat to their faux-market economics! Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge and Chilworth (and 96 other places) say otherwise.

The new Metro Mayors may have the advantage of seeing bigger, less parochial, pictures. They may also have ‘convening power’ — the leadership ability to encourage sensible collaboration. Similar initiatives in the UK’s devolved nations identify innovation, enterprise and the creation of new jobs as key to future prosperity. The question for all community leaders is how best to increase the local capacity for innovation and hence job-creation. Their solutions require local action on several fronts. Not surprisingly, the strength of those local actions is a key indicator of truly intelligent communities.

From across the UK and overseas, delegates at the Intelligent Community Forum’s 2018 Summit will share their experiences of creating affordable spaces for start-up ventures and the supporting eco-systems needed to service them. Forward-looking local leaders dare to invest in these enterprises both directly and indirectly — and ensure that they retain an interest that will eventually bring an even greater return to their sponsoring communities. Creating jobs, gaining inward investment and delivering profit to offset local taxation are ‘municipal enterprise’ themes that fit well in collaboration with local universities, colleges of Further Education and local enterprise.

Another angle on boosting innovation capacity is to take local community challenges to those institutions and seek ways to fund research focused on local priorities. All too often research and study agendas are set by distant Funding Councils that are based around specific academic disciplines and industry silos but not informed by priority needs that are right on the doorstep. The immersion of students in local challenges increases the likelihood that they’ll stay and thrive, working within their local communities.

Delegates at the ICF summit next month will also hear news of the Global Parliament of Mayors — heading for Bristol in October. They will take home ideas that will set new challenges to boost local innovation capacity. They will become pacemakers for Place Makers.

Part 8 of the ‘Knowing Your Place’ series will consider the scope for local community actions on environmental sustainability priorities. The penultimate episode in this primer ahead of the ICF Global Summit, ‘Keep On Running (in circles)’, will be published on May 23rd.

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  1. p233, ‘The New Localism’, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, Brookings Institute Press. (Review)