Assuming the recovery position

By Pat Ritchie | 15 December 2020

Every economic shock is unique, but their impacts have been depressingly similar. Each recession has worsened UK regional economic disparity, particularly in the North, particularly for the most vulnerable.

As far back as 1928, the Industrial Relocations Act was trying to spread prosperity across the UK. Almost a century later, things are worse not better.

Why has this been such an intractable problem, and what should we do differently now to deal with the biggest economic shock in 300 years? Success relies on two key principles.

Firstly, we need collaborative working from the outset, not as an add-on. No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and given the nature and scale of the economic challenge cities and other places face, no single group of actors can deliver a solution.

Secondly, we need to wire-in agility and flexibility to local responses. The collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams, for example, comes on the back of structural shifts already happening in retail, but means big areas of city centres will have to reconfigure themselves almost overnight.

The national Economic Recovery Working Group, on which I sit, is a work in progress, but a clear illustration of how to create better answers by adopting these principles. Local and combined authorities, cities, counties and local enterprise partnerships are working alongside senior civil servants across departments, taking a uniquely collaborative approach to policy design which reports in to ministers.

The results so far are a broad consensus coalescing around a comprehensive plan for economic recovery and renewal, which Core Cities developed into a Spending Review submission (www.corecities.com). It is also a deliverable plan, precisely because it has involved the organisations that best understand the distinctive natures of local economies and communities.

The complexity of how places work can easily be missed by national policy-makers. Success relies on local and national players aligning efforts around specific issues for different spatial areas: place-based working. The collaboration evident in the Working Group is the only credible way to deliver this.

But we are not there yet. The combined brainpower of so many able colleagues can deliver the innovation, but translating that into action is another matter. Unless collaboration happens early on, it becomes a process of trying to influence positions people have already taken, rather than helping to form those positions from the start.

I am convinced that unless we are able to do more of the latter, more opportunities will be missed, more livelihoods affected.

Drawing on the Working Group’s thinking, there are six key priorities we need to act on now, collaboratively, to prepare the ground for future recovery.

  • Recognise how local economies actually work. To see places as economic islands is wrong, will waste resources, and ultimately fail those places. The role of cities and city regions is fundamental to national recovery, but as interdependent economic networks linking cities, towns and rural areas.
  •  Localise skills and employment programmes. There is a strong, evidenced case for localisation of programmes like Kickstart, using local knowledge to get people into learning and work.
  • Grasp the opportunity of green recovery with both hands. Green, inclusive growth is a major opportunity people want and that can deliver jobs. We need a package for environmentally sustainable, socially just recovery, alongside support for existing business.
  • Put people at the heart of future resilience and recovery. More must be done to increase population health and wellbeing as an economic as well as social asset, reliant on properly funded public services.
  •  Give each place the flexibility it needs to meet local challenges. What works in Newcastle may not in Newark and policy must recognise the unique nature of each locality.

Do more to decentralise and devolve. This is the right moment to move on from our country’s highly centralised systems. A centralised approach has limited the impacts of the health response to COVID. We must learn from this and not make the same mistake in our economic response.

Although some of our work has already been adopted – for example the chancellor mentioned place-based working in his Spending Review speech – overall, this announcement felt like a missed opportunity. It lacked the sense of urgency dictated by the Government’s own economic forecasts, and did not resolve the local government funding crisis, putting future recovery at risk.

The Working Group is ongoing, and has already been an important milestone in joint working. The central lesson has to be that if Government engages quickly and meaningfully even earlier, we can achieve much more together. In doing so we can access the best thinking there is across the whole of local and national government, and from private sector colleagues.

The only question left unanswered is, why wouldn’t we do more of that?

Pat Ritchie is chair of Core Cities UK’s chief executive officers’ group and chief executive of Newcastle City Council

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