A hard act to follow

By Ann McGauran | 13 January 2021

The beginning of 2021 heralded a momentous time for exits, and after nearly two decades leading the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) it is also the year Neil McInroy will move on.

Well, not quite. It could be yet another case of ‘to make an end is to make a beginning’. While he will step down as chief executive in July in search of new professional challenges, his long relationship with CLES will continue, albeit through a transformation. He will become both a strategic adviser to the organisation and a member of the board of trustees.

CLES board member and corporate director of regeneration and economic growth at Wakefield Council Tom Stannard has worked with Mr McInroy since 2004. When the decision was announced, he said the organisation’s chief executive would ‘leave an indelible legacy on the work of CLES and our mission to secure better, more just and sustainable local economic development across the UK’.

Mr Stannard, who will be taking up a new role as chief executive at Salford City Council at the end of this month, said Mr McInroy would be missed as a ‘firebrand advocate for CLES’s values’. He would be ‘a hard act to follow and he will forever be associated with CLES’s ongoing success’, he continued.

The MJ met virtually with Mr McInroy to discuss his career with CLES, and to get his take on the state of local economies at this crisis-ridden juncture. But with the UK’s recent Brexit deal focusing the minds of leaders both nationally and locally, what’s his assessment of that particular departure?

‘Within the maelstrom of the pandemic, the (Brexit) trade deal is an added worry and complication for many local economies already facing severe problems.’ We can be sure of a few things, he adds. ‘Firstly, for exporters and importers it is an enduring negative, as the trade deal creates significant non-tariff barriers to trade. Secondly, rules on state aid and subsidies to business have been repatriated. However this is unlikely to deliver anything like the promises made as regards the levelling up agenda, as subsidies to UK business by UK Government are still subject to potential challenge from EU companies as part of free trade deal.’ But he is adamant the movement for progressive local economics will keep on going forward.

One of the most significant CLES policy agendas over the last number of years is community wealth building (CWB), with its focus on resilience, redirecting wealth back into the local economy and making it generative, rather than extractive. His organisation has, of course, worked with local councils on this throughout the UK and Europe, including Manchester, Preston, Islington LBC and Barcelona.

How strong a movement is it? ‘To turn the dial on neoliberalism...that takes a lot of hard work and effort. CWB was a direct attack and disruption of a neoliberal economic model that favours large corporates who extract wealth and global capital. We’re not even remotely near addressing that big macro-dominant economic issue, but community wealth building – by stealth, good action on the ground, and practice – is turning the dial every day, little by little.’

He says 20 to 30 municipalities in England are doing some form of CWB. He highlights that the Scottish Government ‘has now adopted it as an approach to developing its wellbeing economy and inclusive economic growth, and that’s an important marker. We’ve got a national Government backing it.’ It is being pushed closer to the economic mainstream, in his view.

While he believes the pandemic has put a focus on ‘fraternity and solidarity and reinforced an overall interdependence’ – he says what is dispiriting about some of this, ‘is that it’s being contorted into “let’s build community power up and use it to plug holes in our public services”’.

What worries him the most? ‘There’s a danger around the idea we will be in crisis, and then we will have the vaccine, and then we will be out of crisis. Inaction on the climate crisis due to the structural economic change the pandemic has thrown at us, and possibly [the arrival of] future pandemics mean we need to do away with the idea that this is a linear moment in history.’ Instead, he sees the future as a ‘rollercoaster of more and more intense moments’.

The public health crisis is ‘transferring to a social and economic crisis’, and the Government’s levelling up intentions, he asserts, are a ‘weak rehash of 80 years of pain in terms of trying to balance the UK’. Regeneration is needed ‘because capital investment funds don’t go to poor places – capital stays away from those localities’.

When he contemplates his own future, he’s positive, excited, and a bit nervous. ‘Being relatively freed from running an organisation means I can work in different ways that being the chief executive of an organisation doesn’t afford me to do. There’s an element of liberation.’ It’s far from being an ending for this firebrand.

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