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Getting ahead of the growth plan game

‘Oh Lord Make Me Virtuous, But Not Yet.’ These words were probably written some 1,500 years ago by St. Augustine. They echoed in my ears as I pondered what we need to do to fix the UK’s local and regional economies. It is to be hoped that virtue would be found in the statutory Local Growth Plans a Labour Government would require places to write, setting out the ambitions for a better future for our cities and towns. But what should we do now to prepare?

In my 35 years of working life, I can’t recall a greater gap between current practice and what’s needed to raise the long-term rate of sustainable growth. There is time enough to craft the words for new plans. The focus now should be on much grittier practical action that will start to close the gap.

At Metro Dynamics we’ve written plenty of plans. And I hope we always do. But strategies are not a substitute for action. They are as good as the priorities, projects and partnerships that go into them. The problem? Battered by austerity, the loss of strategic capacity and a return to the infantilising game of government-led bidding rounds to hard pressed councils, many places are poorly prepared to respond. Combined authorities, led by Mayors where present, are to lead the new plans.

But these authorities are still forming in many places and plans everywhere will be reliant on partnership with wider communities, above all councils, which hold important budgets and assets.

We are going to need to get ourselves in the right mindset. There is a question I often ask people to start the ball rolling: if an investor (or the Chancellor) came along with a cheque for say £100m for you to start to spend this year on creating sustainable growth, what are your investable propositions? Too often the answer is that there isn’t anything. Or at least there is nothing in the state of preparedness that it is deliverable and fundable.

How on earth are we going to kickstart growth unless we change matters? And what will be the impact of Local Growth Plans if we don’t?

So, while we prepare for the new Government and the seemingly overwhelming likelihood of nationally required local plans, let’s use the summer to start work on what to put in them – to challenge a Whitehall machine whose ambition for our communities is nothing like as high as it needs to be.

Local Growth Plans should frame the practical actions that places propose to deliver, whether in terms of regeneration and housing, skills and employment or business and investment. So my best advice to council leaders is to sit down today and start to work up your plan not by writing it but by asking what you need to do to increase your rate of sustainable and inclusive growth.

Start with evidence-based priorities – not over-optimistic thinking about what in a perfect world might be possible, but the creation of a set of priorities and goals that reflect your place and its opportunities as well as needs.

Then it needs to be turned into a set of propositions and projects. In some cases, these are things that are deliverable now. Some will need to be turned into business cases, and investment needs quantified and identified. And in many cases, there may well be a need for resources and/or powers from central government to make them a reality. The key point is that the programmes and activities are what your place needs and can benefit from, developed into robust projects. If you get that far and the Government needs to do its bit to help you deliver them, you’re on the way to getting what you need to turn ideas into reality.

Getting this far means looking beyond the boundary of the combined or other local authority, and beyond the environmental, social and governance and corporate social responsibility approach of business initiative as opposed to deep partnership with places. It means grown up conversations between the public and private sector, higher education included, about investment at scale in the activities that create economic momentum and inclusion.

These three p’s – priorities, projects and partnerships – are essential foundations to places looking to shift the dial on growth. But maybe there is a fourth one: private. Here I don’t mean local businesses and inward investors so much as private financial capital.

Does anyone seriously expect the next government is going to turn on the taps of public expending on a large scale? I’ll have a pint of whatever you’re drinking if you do. That leaves private finance – smart private finance – working with savvy holders of the public funding that is available, as a tool we can’t ignore. We are working with places to help them gear up in this way. If you aren’t, you should be.

There is hard work to be done over the summer. It is essential we start now if we are to be ready to use Local Growth Plans in due course to fulfil the virtuous ambition to which we aspire.

Author: Mike Emmerich, Founding Director of Metro Dynamics

25 June 2024 

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