The new mainstream


Brexit and ongoing economic and social troubles has exposed the choices. On the one hand, there is a progressive choice – greater inclusion, hope, social growth and a narrowing of the gap between the haves and the have-nots. On the other, there is a more reactionary choice – fear, more divisions, economic growth for a few, and a deepening hardship for many.

In local government, six years of austerity has started to impact severely on the extent to which local government can flex and bend. While austerity has prompted some service change, it is now evident that demand firefighting and running to stand still are stymieing much needed innovation and transformation. Damagingly, we see no end or easing up on austerity. Business rate repatriation and increases in council tax represent flawed fixes, inadequate in the face of an evident need for a relaxation in austerity and a wholesale change to local government finance.

The promise of devolution, while welcome, is subject to hyperbole and remains a flawed project, working to narrow ideas about what constitutes economic development and fettered by rising demand and reducing budgets. The election for new city mayors is an opportunity for progressive mandates, which could overtake the limited devolution agenda we have seen so far. Key to this is a need to strengthen the democratic and social dimensions of devolution.

However, and most encouragingly, across the country we are starting to see small scale innovations and alternatives. Next year should the year that we build on this practical progressive activity – articulating and pursuing an economy and society which is successful, resilient and socially just.

The new mainstream have five facets:

  1. Decentralised governance. Traditional local economic development relies on top-down government. In 2017 we should create an economic development which is made more by and for people, not big government and elites of big business.
  2. Using our public assets better. Traditional local economic development often sees our public services as a cost and their economic role is underplayed. In 2017  we need to harness the power of large ‘anchor’ institutions like hospitals and universities in terms of local supply chains, personnel policy and more community benefit to be extracted from of land and property assets.
  3. Digital maturity. Tradition economic development sees the digital era as a sector.  However, it should be seen as a means to democratise the economy.  Smart technologies herald a new open source collaborative economy, where and peer to peer activities take economic wealth production away from the few within a vertical hierarchy, to many within horizontal systems.  Creating deep relationship between producers and consumers, creating more sensitivity to social concerns and unmet social needs.
  4. Social growth is as important as economic growth. Traditional economic development tends to see investment in social lives as a cost. However, investing in the social welfare of people is an economic investment in the future productivity of people, communities and place.
  5. Investing for longer term resilience. Traditional economic development can often be a short term fix. We need to invest for the longer term, better quality goods purchased now can bring savings in the future as the same products will not need to be purchased again. Additionally, services with social value embedded will also reduce demand for wider public services.

We are cursed and lucky to be living in these turbulent times. Cursed, because the economic, local government and public service challenge has never been greater. We have a daily hurdle to work with shrinking budgets, economic uncertainty and rising demand. Lucky, because unprecedented change has prompted a new energy, to try new things, to innovate, to build solutions which may be better than what has gone before.

Rethinking the economic system to be more socially and environmentally just, is no longer a question of ‘nice to have’ alternative or an ‘add on’ to the mainstream – this should start to be the new mainstream!