Reclaiming our regions

    25th April 2024
  • Combined recipe for healthy communities

    How can mayoral combined authorities use their powers and resources to keep us well? In a new programme of joint working launched last month, CLES, The King’s Fund and the Health Foundation have come together to answer this key question. This project builds on a £1.3m Health Foundation award to the West Midlands Combined Authority, who will be working in partnership with eight other combined authorities over three years to drive action on health within the regions.

    English mayoral combined authorities have been established with a remit to boost sub-regional economic growth, enhance local democratic engagement and accountability and address knotty policy problems. Through their distinct powers, responsibilities and resources, they are also able to affect the wider determinants of health, such as people’s access to good quality work, transport and housing.

    RORE-ing forward

    The UK has a big problem, and for once, it’s one everyone can agree on: for too long, regional disparities have suppressed the potential of some areas of our country, leaving communities behind, as growth and opportunity amass in others.

    But things could be different. For at least 20 years there has been recognition that decentralisation is the key to a more even spread of prosperity across the UK. From New Labour’s devolution of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies to the creation of elected mayors under Cameron and Osbourne’s government, both parties have recognised the necessity of devolving powers from Westminster. But, as Britain’s persistent levels of regional inequality have made clear, simply devolving modest powers is not the solution. The one-size-fits all approach to economic development, predicated on GVA growth, which is favoured in Westminster does not benefit all our regions equally.
    “communities in the driving seat”
    Now, with new devolution settlements coming into force in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and with more areas set to follow suit – including the North East, as announced in last week’s Spring Budget – combined authorities are bringing clout, spending power and scale to our regions for the first time in a long time. This means that leaders have the opportunity to experiment with different ways of doing things. They can explore how local levies and powers can be used to encourage sustainable and equitable economic development as well as how new powers over transport, health and housing can put people and communities in the driving seat of decision-making. This is a moment of huge potential, with the door at least partially open to build a new way of doing economic decision making at a scale not seen before.

    Midnight in Edinburgh with Adam Smith

    It was midnight and raining as I walked up a deserted Royal Mile in Edinburgh ahead of our event to discuss the Scottish Government’s proposed legislation for community wealth building. Out of the gloom, standing in front of a moody St Giles’ Cathedral was Adam Smith (well, his statue at any rate!).

    Often credited as the father of modern economics and a proponent of self-interest characterised as “the invisible hand”, Smith was just as passionate about morality. 20th century economists, of course, made sure to keep the morality out of economics and we are all (quite literally) the poorer for it.
    “we need to change our economic system so that it works in the interests of people”
    Smith’s understanding of economics as a social rather than a mathematical science was a revelation to me when I was studying at The University of Glasgow. But Adam Smith was only the beginning of my enlightenment – I have since been lucky enough to learn from economists across the world who also believe we need to change our economic system so that it works in the interests of people, rather than the other way around.

    Owning the workplace, securing the future

    At the heart of the debate on community wealth building is a fundamental question about ownership and who or what holds the keys to wealth in our society.

    In the midst of record inflation and a crisis where too few people earn enough to be able to feed their children and put a roof over their heads, tackling the unequal distribution of wealth ownership will be fundamental in helping to build a better economic model longer term.

    Levelling up paper falls way short of what is needed

    This article originally appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence.

    As an organisation with a keen interest in and focus on improving the health and vitality of local economies, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has much to say about the government’s levelling up white paper. Crucially, we believe that the document falls far short of the six tests we set ahead of its release.

    Firstly, on its purpose. Levelling up is, at long last, evolving from a catchy electoral slogan and we now have an emerging basket of indicators for success. But it’s not yet clear how these national ambitions will translate into local delivery which supports opportunities for everyone. There is nothing in the indicators about addressing wealth inequality or poverty, for example.

    You can’t level up from Whitehall

    This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

    The Levelling up White Paper was finally published last week.  But despite 332 pages of what was a rather chaotic document (part text book, part policy, part analysis), when it comes to levelling up, it’s clear that Westminster think they are in charge.

    The centrepiece of the White Paper were the 12 eye catching ‘missions’, many of which have been branded unrealistic by commentators.  However, if they are to have any chance of meeting just a few of them, they will need local government on their side.  A cursory glance down the list of missions and indicators shows that against nearly every goal, local government has a role to play.

    The mission for mayors is to reimagine our economic future

    The government must commit to giving them the powers they need.

    This article originally appeared in the New Statesman.

    With the establishment of new metro mayors and new powers for existing ones, English devolution looks as if it will be one of the winners of the Levelling Up white paper. But this new generation of mayors will be working in a very different economic context to those appointed back in 2015. Their mission must be to rethink and reimagine our subregional economies in order to build a more equitable recovery.

    Regional and sub-regional metro mayors (not to be confused with directly elected mayors that cover one local council area, introduced under the previous Labour government) were touted as a lynchpin of the so-called “devolution revolution” of the mid-2010s – itself designed to drive growth across larger economic geographies. The theory was that new subregional tiers of governance, headed by directly elected mayors, would help to galvanise public and private support for new investment. The indicators for success were improvements in productivity and a closing of the gap between London and the rest of the UK.

    Open letter to Michael Gove

    Sarah Longlands, Chief Executive of CLES, has today written to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, imploring him to level up the UK by bringing wealth home to communities and businesses.

    As the Conservative Party Conference kicks off in Manchester, Sarah urges Mr Gove to consider three approaches to “making the most of the wealth and assets that already exist in the country’s cities, towns, villages and regions”.

    Dear Mr Gove

    From Coronavirus to Community Wealth – Building Back Better in Northern Ireland

    Just over a year ago, our organisations – the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and Development Trusts NI (DTNI) – jointly penned Time to build an inclusive local economy – A Charter for Change, setting out a community wealth building approach to local economic development in Northern Ireland.

    A lot has changed since then. Theresa May no longer occupies Number 10; Leo Varadkar is no longer Taoiseach; Stormont is back; Brexit is happening – bringing with it disruptions to trade in Northern Ireland. And we have suffered, and continue to suffer, the enormous social and economic turmoil brought about by Covid-19.
    “For all too long, the economy in NI has not been working well for people and place.”
    Amidst all this change, some things, however, have remained constant. Northern Ireland’s economy – even prior to the onset of coronavirus – had still not recovered fully from the financial crisis. For all too long, the economy in NI has not been working well for people and place. Poverty and inequality remain stubbornly entrenched, and NI suffers from the highest rate of economic inactivity across the UK – an unenviable record it has held for over three decades.

    Levelling up needs to get real – but so does our response to it

    This article originally appeared in The Municipal Journal

    Levelling up is the latest buzz phrase being bandied about to address the stark divisions and variations in economic performance across the country. Whilst it is welcome that the government seems to be concerned by this unacceptable state of affairs, we must view with some scepticism a new phrase landing upon a problem which has deep and longstanding roots.

    We have indeed fallen far – research undertaken by CLES has shown that many of the regions and nations of the UK have spent time in recession through recent years. We need to get real about levelling up – the scale of the challenge facing us, and the structural factors that underpin the problem.

    We need to remake democracy

    This post originally appeared on the website of  Compass – an organisation that fights for a more equal, democratic and sustainable society.

    In 1934 the political historian RH Tawney said that the UK is ‘the oldest and toughest plutocracy in the world’.  Our democracy has been unjust for a very long time – too ready to doff its hat to privilege and wealth.

    We have had years of scandals as regards cash for questions, the power of lobbyists, and dubious parliamentary expense claims. The recent Brexit debate and paralysis has further revealed the deep problems. Brexit has seeped into the rotten cracks of our democracy and parliamentary processes and made them chasms.  Our democracy and ‘mother of all’ parliaments is in bad shape, it has now been fully exposed:  arcane, archaic and addled.  Unable to represent properly and inchoate.  It sets the tone for our wider democracy and it is increasingly discordant.

    Back to the future? Thoughts on the first UK2070 Commission report

    The UK2070 Commission has released its first report: fairer and stronger: rebalancing the UK economy. The first of three reports, it represents the latest in a long line of policy efforts which have sought to tackle the deep spatial inequality which has plagued the UK as far back as the Barlow Commission of 1940. Does this report – or the Commission as a whole – offer a genuine, much-needed step change?

    The starting point for UK2070 should be an acknowledgement that we live in unprecedented times: profound social, economic and democratic crises continue to unfold with a terrifying backdrop of ongoing climate emergency. Spatial imbalances are framed by this, as such  we need a fundamental redress to the UK social contract – this is not a 1979, 1997 or 2010 moment, this is more like 1945.