Last week, the UK elected a new government, with a largely unkown policy agenda for cities, regions and local areas, or for any wider policy programmes involving enterprise, innovation, or skills. The local and regional disparities in wealth and economic performance are well known. Glenn Athey at mylocaleconomy gives his thoughts on what might be next – and how to best prepare your city or locality to engage with the UK government.
We’ve been here quite a few times before – a major policy issue (Brexit) dominating the national policy agenda and debate, sometimes along with the NHS. But little mention of how the divisions in the UK economy and society are going to be healed.
Ok we could get into a lot of introspection about the severity of the problems, and how we need a holistic, long-term solution. What I’ve learned over the past 10 years is that some types of governments are rarely, if ever going to develop these holistic, long-term solutions. Cities and localities have to take the lead themselves.
When there’s a big policy gap – be prepared to step in to fill it
Greater Manchester’s dominance of the local and regional economic policy sphere in the UK since 2010 is no accident. The work to do this began in the mid 2000s, built on historic cooperation and shared policies, and shared economic development and enterprise promotion activities. When the regional economic policy agenda was demolished by the coalition government in 2010, Manchester effectively stepped in with its own agenda.
For me, the main lessons from the past decade which I would suggest are important to bear in mind from the beginning of 2020 are as follows.
Get your Brexit readiness and resilience plan done, and understand the new opportunities
This is all I’ll say about Brexit… if you have not done a Brexit readiness and resilience plan yet – you need to. Brexit will cause structural changes in the economy. Changing trading relationships, and in cases such as Agriculture, the financial support mechanisms which underpin the whole industry – will have impacts. Do you know your vulnerabilities? do you have a redundancy response programme in place? do you know how many of your farmers will not survive the transition from CAP? do you know what will tip the balance towards closure of an automotive component manufacturer? if not, you need to find out.
There’s a lot of pent up investment out there… marketing your locality is a basic necessity
Also – there’s a lot of pent up investment out there which has been waiting to see what happens with Brexit. Once the direction of travel is clearer – expect investor interest to pick up. Do you have a decent investor marketing and engagement plan, branding, specialist staff and networks with land owners and developers? Do you have a neat, easy to understand offer and package for investor attraction?
“Shy bairns (kids) get nowt” as we used to say where I grew up. In this type of government, at this time of transition – they will not have the capability or the ability to see who needs help. If your locality is in crisis, or has massive economic opportunities you can’t afford to be passive…. but you also need to articulate some practical solutions you need help with funding or implementing…
This can also apply to economic inclusion and poverty issues. Some areas have done great studies on the extent and impact of poverty and exclusion such as Sheffield and Luton (which we were involved in), and also articulated action plans. What we can’t perhaps expect is a great national initiative to address this. We need to keep up the local pressure – and to do this we need evidence, solutions and an action plan, and local leadership to champion this.
Cities and localities need fundable propositions – that meet central government funding requirements
Over the next few years, it is unlikely that, in the the field of city and local economic development and performance, a well crafted policy with defined objectives, budgets, and articulation of ‘how’ will appear from central government! This will take years, if it happens at all.
Meanwhile, the government will fall back on what it knows best – grant-based funding, pots designed to address broad objectives – be they town centre regeneration, innovation, business growth or investment attraction. I know this is not what some folks want to hear – but its what will happen. Its a case of making it work for your area.
Localities and cities need to be able to articulate their own challenges, opportunities and how they are going to deliver…
We all know the score – massive funding pot announced, loose criteria, rules and regulations ‘in progress’ – so you need some decent, fundable projects for your locality here. Get to work designing them, or dusting them off.
Oven ready projects ready for funding, that meet the government’s business and economic case – are very likely to get funding in the next two years. If you do not have any viable projects ready… what are you waiting for?
There is room to influence policy and push for your own piloting of new solutions
The UK civil service has a diminished capacity and capability for policy and delivery design and delivery – use this to your advantage. Witness the past 10 years – funding pots for ‘regional growth’, calls to inform the new ‘industrial strategy.’ A lot of reliance on stakeholders and the policy community to articulate policy, rather than central government departments.
In the first year or two of government – there’s a lot of influencing to be done. Whether this concerns skills, regeneration, capital investment, innovation, or business growth – it is open to influence.
If you want to change the institutional toolkit – start planning now
Central government in the UK is well-known for imposing its own delivery vehicles and funding rules on localities. This often needs a push back from localities to get the policy and delivery tools and resources that you need. If you already have a good idea of what policy and delivery tools you need – get your local leaders together, and get out to ministers.
Also – its worth trying to push back on anything too radical for institutions and delivery vehicles. They take years to set up, and to get properly delivering. Look at LEPs – it took three years before they were taken seriously. City Mayors and combined authorities – the process was about three years for many. Most of the powers and policy remit already exist in local government – whether as a direct deliverer or as having the capability to set up special purpose vehicles. Perhaps use this, rather than invent something new, untested, and likely to take years to roll out?
Communication is key – its how you engage with government and ministers
Finally – if you have got a strategy, that’s great – but you will need to turn it into something that makes a minister sit up and take notice.