Localis chief executive Jonathan Werran (pictured) considers the role of the local in the COVID-19 recovery and what place directors can do to promote prosperity.
Recently, I had the great good fortune to pose as a ‘provocateur’ for the ADEPT Spring Conference to help answer, among good company, what role its members can play individually and collectively in supporting the shift to a new normal in the context of the pandemic and climate emergency. The new normal was a Zoom conference ably managed and moderated by Phil Swann and the Shared Intelligence crew.
In the move from rescue to recovery to restructuring, we have a historical lesson to draw down from in the post war recovery.
In response to how the country should go about helping those parts of the country which will be more stricken by the Covid-19 enforced lockdown than others, a lot has been said about local Marshall Plans – the ambitious reconstruction of war devastated Europe funded along Rooseveltian New Deal lines.
The process of getting a divided Europe to unite in bidding to Washington for dollars, resources and raw materials was as torturous, protracted but undoubtedly successful in restoring confidence to a lost continent. Moving to the present day, let’s translate Washington to Whitehall and European nation states to English regions and strategic authorities. And let’s also work on the assumption we can’t deepen pain with austerity.
But don’t assume the spirit of collective endeavour can be maintained - perhaps we are seeing evidence that is already fraying. Or assume that the normal rules of politics and economics have been completely suspended.
Britain didn’t make the most of the Marshall Plan – overseas commitments, nationalisations and the higher than planned costs of the infant welfare state saw to that. We didn’t create an economic miracle which West Germany achieved or manage thirty glorious years to match the French achievement.
Seven decades on, we must ask what would be the best use of the time and whatever funding is available from various sources, both public and private? The best answer would be to use the transition to modernise and invest in the future of a properly-managed and dynamic industrial base.
We need to use the time to prepare for economic resilience – from just in time to spare capacity, from hyper-globalisation to greater national and regional self-sufficiency
Think also about how we can use any transition to exert control over modernisation and automation by harnessing the pre-eminent use of digital – not as a siloed sector but as a set of technologies across all industries.
And from here, how we set about providing the infrastructure to do so. We would do well to learn from the mistakes of the mid 1980s, which promoted the concept of pure market competition over superior advanced technology and national self-interest.
Sound investment in place will also mean getting the balance right between digital and physical infrastructure – while seeing connectivity and mobility and logistics as a cohesive place response.
Learning from the 2008 financial crash, we can safely say initial resistance does not ensure long term resilience. It will be important to work immediately at the local level to transform economies and build up resilience.
This will require bold thinking, and in places necessitate a ‘fresh start’ approach to political and economic institutions at the local level. The myriad problems associated with the UK’s over-reliance on London as a productivity engine will be cast in a new light as urban economies are transformed in the wake of the rescue and into the recovery.
All of this is likely to take place in an environment where we will have to, in the words of Adrian Bell and Chris Brooks, “pay a little more and wait a little longer to get a little less than we have become accustomed to”. Within local areas, directors of place must be making a strategic case in advance of what is likely to be a one-year spending round but whose capital allocations might well be fixed.
The thinking should be what is necessary in order to hit the economic ball on the bounce.
We could look at it through the prism of what would be important in areas of:
- Business and growth
- Levelling up – including housing and infrastructure and research and development
- Local labour market changes
- Role of local government in economic development
- A wider sense of the health economy
In one sense, resilience might mean a wider sense of space. We have examples of successful interlinked strategies between cities in the USA or as has been proposed here between Manchester and Liverpool.
It will necessitate a new way of working with the centre. In our report from this time last year ‘Hitting Reset – a case for local leadership’ Localis set out a roadmap for giving strategic local authorities a genuine role in economic leadership.
Place leaders must acknowledge that what was an already centralising government has in recent weeks transformed from mild Dr Bruce Banner to The Incredible Hulk in the wake of the pandemic.
Large scale financial support for businesses and individuals is unlikely to fall to local leaders. Local Enterprise Partnerships are unlikely to gain the sort of revenue and capital budgets they need to make things work at scale.
But they and their local authority partners can play a critical role in alerting, communicating early warning of difficulties, advising on implementation and pursuing local efforts to rebuild which the centre will have no capacity to directly manage.
So our place leaders should take a lead not just from Franklin Delano but also his Republican predecessor as president, Theodore Roosevelt and seek to: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’