Let's party like it's 2009...and plan like it's 2019

Assiduous readers of this blog will know, at this time of year I try to combine historic reflections, a look to the future, with some seasonal cheer and humour.

Reviewing the last three years of Xmas/New Year blogging is revealing? The downbeat 2011/12 messages of 'Do they know its Xmas', followed by 'Avoiding managed decline in 2012' was a comment on the coalition's fragmented, incoherent minimalist approach to local growth in their first eighteen months.

The more upbeat 2012/13 '12 days of Xmas...' and '[towards]...a happy 2013' reflected the post-Heseltine 'No stone unturned...' renewed purposes for local economic leadership. And 2013/14's tongue-in-cheek 'favourite things' presaged a serious piece on 'futures thinking' - exploring post-Heseltine regimes as a foundation for radical, progressive, 'what if' scenarios in the medium term. Building on 2013/14 spirit, this 2014 Xmas blog argues that our sector's seasonal celebrations should 'party like it's 2009'. But our return to work in 2015 should 'plan like it's 2019!'. What do I mean, and why is it important?

This is not the 'whole story', but there is a sense that the coalition's local growth journey is finally arriving at roughly where we had got to in 2009. Nationally there was and remains the backdrop of global financial crisis/uncertainties and public austerity. We tend to forget that 2009-10 GVA growth at current prices was above 3% in both absolute and per capita terms. This is very similar to OBRs 2014-15 economic outlook. The similarities to the local growth landscape are even more uncanny.

A key reference point is 'Total Place; a whole area approach to public services' published with the March 2010 budget of the outgoing labour administration (and swiftly archived by the incoming coalition). [I should declare an interest here, as I did work on the formulation of this document with and for then-colleagues at DCLG.] In 2014, the Chancellor is taking every opportunity to promote the 'northern powerhouse'. In 2009, we had the 'northern way'. Greater Manchester Combined Authority is taking the lead in governance and public service reforms now - realising the 2009/10 promises of a Combined Authority and 'Total Place' approach.

Then, as now, the promise of enhanced devolution is offered to further city regions that pursue governance reforms. At individual local authority (LAs) level, when the leader of Sunderland, on behalf of Key Cities Group, asks for 'whole city single budgets', he is seeking the 'single offer' proposed under Total Place. That document's 'innovative offer' resembles, in many senses, specialist (city and local growth) 'deals' (or components of them) developed under the coalition. In 2009, local growth leadership was provided by agencies (RDAs) chaired by a business leader, with a roughly equal public/private board. Guided by a Regional Economic Strategy, their intervention focus was on delivering a number of EU and government programmes.

Today, LEPs, guided by a Strategic Economic Plan, have oversight of EU 2014-20, and nationally-funded transport and infrastructure, skills and even housing programmes. This is not totally divorced from a 'RDA-lite' parallel. Then, as now, LAs had all the powers of, and often more resources than, RDAs, and felt uncomfortable sharing local leadership, and particularly planning powers, with a non-elected entity. There are contextual and substantive differences, but the similarities do suggest a 'learning from the past' process is not wasted effort.

Papers like the Smith Institute's 'Making Local Economies Matter' (on RDA lessons), and even the routinely-maligned RDA Impact and evaluation reports offer insights that are useful to local economic leadership teams moving forward. This is particularly the case for what I shall term the 'business as usual' (but still very demanding) agendas of actually delivering city and local growth deals, ESIF programmes, enterprise zones, business growth hubs, and the breadth of other expectations government has of LEPs and LAs. Arguably, part of this 'business as usual' scenario is the pressure to agree and develop combined authority and other LA-led governance models for local growth and public services reform.

Moving forward, though, the case for continuing to press for transformational step-change with the past is compelling. Spatial and local growth planning will and should be very different by the end of the decade. The 'best' local leadership teams should anticipate and proactively shape this now. To give an example of the types of issues that need to thought through. In terms of content, the 'greying' healthcare society is already the major service and financial challenge facing the public sector. It is also an important economic opportunity. If, as suggested by the Kings Fund, expenditure on health and social care will rise inexorably to anything between 10-20% of national GDP, employing a minimum of one in eight of the working population, the implications for local economic growth models is immense.

The presence of NHS trusts (e.g. alongside universities) as 'anchor institutions' of local growth decision-making and delivery-management needs to be encouraged much more deeply and broadly than hitherto; and linked in to mainstream public service reforms. In terms of economic strategy, the identification of priority sectors and/or key industries will be increasingly redundant by the 2020s. Areas of activity like digital economy, logistics, engineering, green/low carbon etc., cut across all sectors and industries. To be exploited effectively, this requires new types of thinking and analysis, data and evidence, intervention strategies and techniques. Government science and technology investments, as announced in the Autumn Statement, are already focused more on meeting 'Grand (societal) Challenges' than traditional vertical sectors.

In terms of planning, LAs in particular need to transcend both the inadequacies of 'duty to cooperate', and the reluctance of government to agree a national (or regional) spatial strategy; to produce strategic plans at scale. This is crucial if a construct like 'northern (or Midlands) powerhouse' is to have real meaning; and for the London mega-region to continue to be Europe's premier world city region. Alongside refreshed strategic planning is the need for progressive neighbourhood planning to make a positive contribution to meeting societal challenges - joining this up with neighbourhood management.

Both strategic, LA-based and neighbourhood planning has to sit within effective 'can-do' development management on a whole place, whole-council basis. I suspect 2020 may also have delivered the potential of 'planning in the digital age' to the most ambitious of places. The deployment of big and fast (real-time) data to develop mapping and modelling, scenario and contingency planning, open access and direct democracy is a fascinating challenge to which the profession is beginning to rise (as in this RIBA publication).

In the spirit of read-across, let me finish by linking local to global development game changers. In 2000, the UN Millennium Summit adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A range of targets and milestones to progress the MDGs were agreed - to be achieved by 2015. These shall be reviewed and succeeded by a 'global development framework' next year. Beyond 2015-20 leadership and governance reforms, planning and deploying multiple policies and expenditure programmes, does local growth needs its own long term (MDG-esque) development goals? Between the mince pies and gearing up for 2015-20 delivery, we may choose to party like it's 2009 - but we absolutely must create some space to plan like it's 2019. Seasonal greetings to all...


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