Communities and their Place-Makers: the roots of the UK economy

The London-based Centre for Cities does exactly what it says on the tin. They advocate for better recognition of the economic and societal strengths of the UK’s major conurbations.

‘Cities’ according the Centre for Cities, ‘do not follow the national economy — they ARE the national economy’ — and their diversity demands that each of them have different priorities to meet the needs of their citizen and business communities.

This diversity of needs and priorities stands in sharp contrast to Whitehall’s grasp of the economy. The UK is, measurably, the most centralised of all developed nations.

Even with limited sub-national devolutions beyond England (and the cautious local empowerment of Metro Mayors and City Deals within) it is clear that in so many spheres of our regulated regime, we have a complex challenge — an inability to align centrally planned resources with local needs.

None of that is news. The debate, like some slow-brewing tropical storm, has been building over the last three decades — centrally evidenced by the RSA’s City Growth Commission and today (rather more locally) illustrated by the energy around Bristol’s brilliant ‘Festival of Ideas’. And this locally-driven rebalancing energy is also evident across many UK cities — at a pace, intensity, creativity and engagement that leaves Whitehall Departments in the shade.

This renaissance — the emergence of inspired local leadership and willing communities — is also a cultural expression that positions exponents at some distance from the tired dogmas of national political parties across the spectrum.

Critical impatience is, for example, articulated by Metro Mayors, regardless of Party affiliations. The Centre for Cities noted the marginalisation of these local champions at recent Party conferences and, this week, the C4C lead story is a repeat of a powerful post-election view of paralysis in parliament with a call for MP’s to support local initiatives.

I’m not a disinterested observer. I’ve written previously about Municipal Enterprise and the need to translate and apply the work of fresh economic thinkers like Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato from national to more local perspectives. I’ve watched the brilliantly creative work of Knowle West Media Centre building community cohesion in part of Bristol and for several years I’ve contributed to the work of the US-based Intelligent Community Forum with its global network of around 160 cities.

Whilst our national politicians are looking elsewhere, the new localism is an unstoppable force. This is an energy that is likely be further bolstered by the Intelligent Community Forum’s 2018 Global Summit when civic leaders, CIOs and community developers from many of the world’s leading cities come to London next June to share their experiences. The current holder of the title ‘Intelligent Community of 2017’ is Melbourne, Australia. In recent years UK cities have rarely featured in the rankings but this year Knowle West was assessed as being amongst the Global Top 21 — a huge accolade for their imaginative creativity.

Let’s be clear (as politicians are fond of saying) communities are both economic and societal constructs — they embrace both the places where we work and where we live — and those of us who commute may belong to two or more.

In the gradual evolution of local empowerment, the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships was supposed to have been a step along the way. No doubt they can claim some economic impact but for their wider communities these efforts pass largely unnoticed and, as noted in this week’s Economist, the divergences of well-being means that many feel they are being left behind.

Rather than celebrate diversities the good citizens of less-prosperous places are more likely to fret about ‘post-code lotteries’ when austerity drives down public service standards. Fortunate indeed are those places that rise above party politics to embrace inspired local leadership. But this is a balancing act — local threads woven into wider regional fabrics.

What marks out the new New Localism are signs of vastly greater local engagement — and with that higher-octane fuel the drivers of the UK economic performance and our social and cultural developments are very firmly in the hands of local communities and their place-makers.

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David Brunnen on Municipal Autonomy, Communities, Sustainability & Digital Challenges PLUS reflections on life in Portchester — the place that he calls home.

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David Brunnen on Municipal Autonomy, Communities, Sustainability & Digital Challenges PLUS reflections on life in Portchester — the place that he calls home.

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