Be brave when times are tough

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal, where our Chief Executive, Sarah Longlands, writes a regular viewpoint column.

Inflation may have eased, but there are tough times ahead. Sarah Longlands urges local authorities to step outside their comfort zone and reimagine economic growth

Early in my career, I worked as an economic development officer at Barnard Castle, with the objective of marketing the town to visitors in order to support local businesses and jobs. Little did we know at the time that all we needed to put this vibrant historic town back on the map was a certain person’s eye test.

I have been thinking back to those times this week while reading through the early findings from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, to be published in the autumn, based on our many conversations with local economic development officers across the UK.

We have been trying to understand how they feel about the challenge of building wealth for communities: their frustrations as well as their ideas for economic transformation on the local level. Despite the many challenges and the tough working conditions many of them face, it has been inspirational to read about their commitment to positive change in places across the UK.

“The best councils work hard to mobilise their economic impact”

Local councils still do not have statutory powers for economic development (as the Institution of Economic Development recently highlighted) and so resources have always been tight. The best councils work hard to mobilise their economic impact, while simultaneously developing a strong sense of economic purpose, not only across their own departments but also with their local communities and other public sector anchors in the area, for example, hospitals and colleges.

While the business of economic development is often pigeonholed as ‘growth’, if you get in a room with a professional, they will talk about people, feelings and hopes, not greater value added, stats and fears. Within minutes you will be hearing about how they want to grow their economy from the bottom up, the importance of securing skills and jobs for their young people and the sense of pride they get from seeing home-grown local businesses thrive.

“building on the strengths of place”

In recent years economic development departments have moved towards a much more deliberate and socially purposeful model of local economics, which is about building on the strengths of place by getting more wealth to circulate locally.

However, our discussions also reveal the unrelenting pressure to attract new people and new inward investment. Often the sense is that the perceived ailment of a place can be simply cured with a boost of fresh talent, skills and finance. Invariably, this prescription relies heavily upon property investment, based on the assumption that rising prices will lead to rising incomes and a better quality of life for all.

However, these benefits often fail to materialise for those with the greatest need. This explains why the poorest areas of cities like Leeds and Manchester remain poor despite their wealth in recent years. Yes, you can argue that with a bit of patience these areas will benefit eventually, but lives don’t stand still, they get lived and in the absence of support, potential gets wasted.

Then there is the fear of raising expectations. Decisions that happen in councils around local economic change rarely involve getting out into the community and encouraging residents to participate in conversations about the future. Rarer still are attempts to use these discussions to encourage and support direct economic activism – for example, supporting communities to take ownership of energy generation, food security or develop community-based approaches to housing – which could help create new jobs, businesses and wealth.

“this is not just another downturn”

When times are tough, it is tempting to revert to the old ways. But, despite a recent modest fall in inflation, this is not just another downturn from which we will bounce back.

We are in a sustained period of low growth, high inflation, rising interest rates and unremitting pain and poverty for the most vulnerable. Extraordinary times are challenging, but they are also an opportunity to be brave, step outside our comfort zone and begin to reimagine economic change which builds upon the energy and ideas in our communities, rather than the vagaries of big capital.