In almost every walk of life a sensible approach for successful future performance should be to ‘learn, re-adjust and deliver’. In national economic development policy and subsequent strategies, however, there seems a desire to continually start again from scratch and ignore the lessons of the past. We may previously have been concerned about whether the government had any ‘corporate memory’ of past successes and failures – but it increasingly seems as though there is collective amnesia.
Economic development over the last two to three years has seemed like a chaotic under 10s football match. Every agency is feverishly running after the ball, but no-one really has a clue how to string together a game plan. Every now and then, after considerable effort, a consolation goal of Towns Fund or Levelling Up Fund may be scored – but we know this will make no difference in changing the overall result.
Instead of the development of a much-needed game plan, however, we have entered a period of speculation about delivery mechanism. Rumours now abound about Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and the economic development approach in England despite now seeming like a moment to pause and reflect. Economic agencies with experience, trusted stakeholder relationships and a carefully developed approach for getting things done are exactly what we need at this time when there is so much wider economic uncertainty.
Why should we pause and reflect? Well, despite the amnesia, there are a number of important lessons that can be taken from the past 20-30 years of economic development policy. It is the collective responsibility of economic development professionals to assemble these lessons.
Lesson 1: Geography
Economic strategy is best delivered across geographical areas that make sense to people and business – partly as this is the scale that delivers opportunities relevant to those participating in the change required, but also pragmatically because central government cannot deal effectively with very large numbers of individual agencies.
Lesson 2: Evidence Base
Required actions can only be developed from an evidence base. This seems too obvious – but many local policy directions have been pursued as a result of a well-meaning passionate belief of an influential figure whereas the data may have suggested more important priorities.
Lesson 3: Central Thread
When an evidence base has been developed for an economic geography, there is an ability to better identify the largest issues for a sub-regional economy – and as a result the priority areas of work that can be undertaken and the difference delivered.
Lesson 4: Objective Setting
The determination of a central thread can allow a set of objectives to be set which will address the priority issues – and can help determine how individual projects can be encouraged and developed which contribute to the overall end game.
Lesson 5: Projects
Individual projects must come last and can only really be appraised against their role within solutions for the bigger picture (the Central Thread).
Lesson 6: Partnerships
Any effective economic delivery work is based on partnerships, but the relationships involved take time to build understanding and trust. This can sound trivial – but in fact joint delivery work across organisations which generally have different core objectives is difficult to achieve and is time consuming to assemble.
The economic development structure within England came together in a somewhat haphazard way after the abolishment of the Regional Development Agencies in 2011 and LEPs had a very inauspicious start to life. Since this point, inconsistencies in approach have continued to create frustrations in the ability for economic development policies to be implemented and for communities and business to fully understand the structures of economic development.
The IED is not suddenly espousing LEPs as a perfect economic development vehicle – but is urging government to recognise the merit of considering economic geography, an evidence-based assessment of need and a central thread of policy, local objective setting that ties into central policy, and only then to consider individual projects.
Evolve LEP delivery mechanisms and accountability by all means – but it is important to recognise that the core requirement for informing change requires solid evidence developed over sensible economic geographies and that this is then translated into a carefully developed plan. Levelling Up and Shared Prosperity will be altogether more effective where wider economic agencies have set out evidence based, considered and clear objectives.
Returning to our everyday theme, we may cheer our under 10s football team scoring an unexpected goal or congratulate a contribution to a small capital project in a left-behind town, but we know that a lack of real strategy means that these will only ever be consolations. Strategies can and should evolve, but they should always be based on a comprehensive assessment of what is required, and they need fully established and trusted delivery mechanisms to implement effectively.
After 10 years we had re-established trusted economic development partnerships and delivery networks that had learned to adapt to austerity and value for money constraints. These partnerships (LEPs and otherwise) can evolve and adjust their strategic direction to align with national priorities. Speculation suggests we may be going back to the drawing board, but the previous learning achieved and risk of losing relationships achieved represents a huge cost.
On that basis, we should surely pause and reflect on all the work that has been undertaken and the areas where the profession is most effective. The only sensible solution is to learn, re-adjust and deliver – and we simply cannot keep reinventing the profession.
Nigel Wilcock is Executive Director of the Institute of Economic Development