It’s a turbulent and uncertain time for local places and their economic prospects.
Devolution is ‘dead in the water’ according to the Local Government Association (LGA). Chief executive of the LGiU Dr Jonathan Carr-West agrees that devolution does not appear to be the direction we’re heading towards, despite his belief that levelling up will fail in the long term without it.
Levelling up itself has been mired in controversy, with the flagship Levelling Up Fund steeped in opposition party accusations of ‘pork barrel politics’ over its allocations.
The deadline for first bids came last month, with leader of Gateshead MBC Martin Gannon pushing back on pressure from the Government to ‘consult’ local MPs as part of their bids. A report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee published this week has said local leaders must have a say in the Plan for Growth – the replacement for the UK’s Industrial Strategy.
In this context, how is the new chief executive of CLES – the Centre for Local Economic Strategies – Sarah Longlands feeling about her new role leading an organisation she left ten years ago?
A former senior consultant and director of policy at CLES, she returned to the fold in June, shifting from her role as director of IPPR North, where she was a vocal advocate for regional development. Why did she decide to go back?
‘I think there’s never been a more critical time for local economies’, she told The MJ.
‘One of the consequences of COVID is that it has shown how important local places and local economies are, and just how important a sense of connection to place is as well.
‘This includes having access to good services, to green space, to support from friends and neighbours and good public services like schools and hospitals and neighbourhood services. And to good housing as well.’
She added: ‘CLES has always been an organisation that has gazed first and foremost at the local and that has been the focus of its work. What we are trying to do is make things better for people. That’s always been a big driving factor for me.’
Prior to her first stint at CLES, she worked in economic development roles within North Yorkshire and County Durham Councils, so the strong focus at CLES on local economic development appealed strongly to her.
‘It’s really good to be able to come back to that sort of foundation having looked at all sorts of different aspects of public policy and economics at a regional level. Getting back to thinking about it on a much more local basis feels a bit like coming home for me.’
Neil McInroy, who has been chief executive of CLES for 20 years, officially steps down this month. He has put in place strong foundations, including a legacy of community wealth building (CWB).
CLES’s profile over the past five or six years ‘has really been growing, and the work that it has done on CWB is really at the cutting edge of local economic development’, she said.
‘I suppose I was keen to be part of that movement – part of that desire to try to break with the orthodoxy of economic development, which hasn’t always made things better for people in local communities and to play a small role in helping to shape and support the organisation and move us onto the next chapter really.’
Her earlier six-year spell at CLES, followed by a PhD on the influence of economic growth policy on spatial planning in England, led her to the conclusion that we need to stop thinking about economic growth as the outcome per se. ‘The outcome we really need to make explicit is about making people’s lives better. Growth is a means towards that, but it shouldn’t be the goal.’
Is levelling up any more than a political marketing device by the Government?
‘I think the way the Government is pursuing levelling up is very explicitly electoral. They’ve made no bones about it. It’s about winning elections and winning votes and it’s about shoring up their new seats in non-traditional areas. The way the funding is being allocated is pretty blatant.’
She continued: ‘We are not dealing with a Government that is exploring the best approach to improving regional inequalities. We are dealing with one that wants to deal with the electoral inequality if you like and addressing the political imbalance.
‘We see that patriarchy that we’ve seen from Westminster over very many years really tightening up with the Levelling Up fund, and completely bypassing the combined authorities and the devolved structures that have been set up in the last five or six years. To me that’s really problematic.’
The Levelling Up fund is going to be mainly capital-based, with ‘a lot of focus on infrastructure’, concentrating on schemes that are ‘quick hits’, with timescales that are ‘ridiculously condensed’.
And it homes in on projects that have been on the books for a long time, she added. ‘They won’t necessarily be bringing anything new to the table that’s going to make a change to people’s life chances.’
But having been very critical of the fund, she said she can ‘totally see that if I was a local authority chief executive I would want to bid for it because there isn’t any other show in town’.
But she believes the bids give local places an opportunity to think about how some of the principles of CWB could be ‘used to make sure that you get a bit of a throughflow of economic and social benefits back into your local area’.
CLES recently published a dossier, Making levelling up a reality, aimed at building community wealth with the infrastructure of everyday life.
It states that as part of evaluating the bids going in, the Government should be thinking about how the money might be used to improve things for people – by providing local jobs, for example.
‘If you are going to procure a particular piece of infrastructure or service, how might you use community wealth building to ensure local businesses and local people have a chance to benefit from it directly? That’s what we would be arguing on levelling up’.
Central Government could play an important part in this agenda, she believes – starting with the Treasury.
‘The Treasury is making this big play around moving premises out of Westminster [to Darlington], but are they doing anything to ensure they are engaging with local suppliers? Are they doing anything with local colleges and universities to ensure there are jobs for people?
‘Are they, in what they’re doing, trying to make their systems an active form of economic development, if they can? Do they see that as their role? I’ve not seen any evidence of that.’ The MJ understands that the Treasury will be setting out its Darlington recruitment plans in due course.
CLES has set up a Community Wealth Building Centre for Excellence and there are a number of communities of practice.
At a time of ‘huge centralism, huge uncertainty and huge inertia, and when so much time and energy has been taken up with COVID, rightly’, she argued this is a chance for local places to seize control of their own destinies.
‘It’s exciting, because a lot of that work doesn’t depend on what happens at Westminster. We can just get on with it. They don’t have to simply sit around and wait for the next kind of blueprint or whatever from Westminster’, she concluded.