Devolution, Revolution and Evolution

Published: 2 December 2016

Perhaps I am a little early to be writing an end of year review. But in terms of shocks to the system, be those Political, cultural and in my case sporting (Leicester born as I am) then hasn’t this been the year that just keeps giving. 2016 has seen a seismic shift in our economic and political environment and the impact on place-making will be profound.  Our towns, cities, villages and regions face incredible challenges, but there are also some hugely exciting spaces for innovation and generational change. 

The banking crisis and recession of 2008 saw a shift in the traditional delivery approach, away from major capital regeneration schemes into far broader economic programmes that focused on putting in place the landscape and tools to attract investment. They sought to bring together community cohesion and regeneration and to encourage entrepreneurship.  Economic development, seen by some as the poor relation to physical regeneration, rightly and refreshingly became increasingly interlinked.

The new landscape we occupy means that local authorities are now considering not just how to encourage local economic growth, but are evolving to look at more ways to commercialise and generate income in order to continue to deliver effective public services. The constrained financial environment means planning and regeneration are becoming ever more income generators; their roles no longer just to change the physical and economic environment but also to underpin social cohesion and well-being by funding a range of other services.

Berwick Partners has spent a good deal of time this year meeting with place-makers in the UK, Europe and North America where Brexit, and devolution more generally, have been the hot topics of conversation.  Brexit has made devolution more complex as these two policies collide. One ex-pat told me of how complex place-making in the UK now seemed to be; describing it as resembling two repelling magnets placed next to each other – one looking to attract inward investment and growth, the other appearing to suggest (at least to some external audiences) closing the shop. 

Devolution and specifically the election of metro-mayors are all the more important following Brexit. A single elected individual also provides a focal point, an ambassador to distinguish a place and attract inward investment in a way that Council leaders without a significant mandate or profile cannot. Positioned between local government and Whitehall, metro-mayors also provide a real opportunity to deliver effective public service reform, deliver economic growth and tackle societal problems such as unemployment, housing and health inequalities where existing models of governance has been ineffective.

The Midlands Engine and the Northern Power House are firmly established, and whilst we possibly await the “Western Wave” , “Eastern Explosion”  or “Coastal Catapult”  the promise of devolution of powers and how critical this is means local authorities, LEP’s and combined authorities are firmly determined to keep it that way and hold Whitehall’s feet to the fire.

In order to be truly successful both mayors and local areas have to have the powers to deliver, they must be backed by both local and central Government and they must have the resources and “teeth” to deliver.

Of course we should not ignore that we have already seen successful initiatives and delivery vehicles being used by local authorities to drive growth. Some of those currently being created will be asset backed, resourced and empowered to leverage and combine housing, urban design, finance, health and wellbeing in ways that will be not only credible with investors and developers but also fleet of foot enough to ensure a more entrepreneurial way of delivery. Having personally worked within an arms-length economic agency and with many of the former URC’s, some of the newly established growth companies feel very different and exciting, with the potential to be game-changing. They are going to require some very new skill sets and will need to support and develop people as they adapt to these new settings. For many the next few years offer opportunities and a professional landscape that will be exciting and career defining.

Our sector has always been dynamic and is arguably one of the best placed to not just survive the political and economic revolution that has occurred over recent months but actually thrive. There are many challenges but also opportunities and new levers ways to shape the places we live, work and bring up our families. 

In the coming months we will be hosting a series of roundtable events to discuss the issues regions, towns and cities face and share ideas and insight into how some are tackling them. I’d welcome your thoughts and views and please contact me if you are interesting in attending. 

Marek Dobrowolski is a Principal Consultant in the Local Government Practice, he specialises in regeneration and place-making.

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