Recent research from City-REDI/ WMREDI at the University of Birmingham and Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University on the geography and functioning of places and the institutions, practice and policies associated with local and regional economic development in the English Midlands has identified a number of challenges for the much-anticipated Devolution White Paper which has subsequently been replaced by the promise of a Levelling Up White Paper. It is imperative that these challenges are addressed if it is to turn the recent rhetoric of ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ into meaningful action to develop the local economies of the English regions in the wake of Covid-19.
These challenges relate to:
- The need for greater coordination and collaboration at the sub-national and particularly sub-regional scale;
- The often inadequate institutional capacities and resources available to develop evidence-based strategies and programmes to develop local economies; and
- The need for economic development bodies to be placed on a consistent statutory footing – with commensurate remits, powers and resources.
This research suggests that the geographically uneven and complex nature of layers of local and sub-regional governance with a mix of statutory and non-statutory organisations and responsibilities, that have developed in a relatively ad hoc way, pose difficulties for gaining a clear line of sight between sub-national and national policies. Ad hoc challenge funding pots can compound problems of longer-term planning and coordination across geographical scales. They also have a homogenising influence on the content of local strategies and programmes that constrain local actors in their efforts to respond to the circumstances of particular places.
While not all local/sub-regional strategies need to be the same, there is a case for greater consistency, such that they share some common characteristics, including a targetry framework and a set of indicators to monitor progress. This requires institutional capacity to be more evenly spread at the sub-national scale.
In some areas, responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have led to new partnerships and a revitalisation of existing partnerships. Recovery frameworks include a broadening of economic development strategies and visions to cover health, well-being and inclusive growth and greater emphasis on digital infrastructure and green issues alongside traditional concerns of skills, innovation and enterprise.
The Levelling Up White Paper has an opportunity to build on this evolving practice, but it will only succeed if it adopts these four propositions:
- For levelling-up to be meaningful, it must extend to levelling-up institutional capacity to deliver economic development, and now recovery, in the wake of Covid-19.
- By and large, reliance on an uneven patchwork of non-statutory bodies to coordinate and deliver local economic development has failed to date. There are exceptions but, in many cases, these bodies lack the capacity and resources needed to develop and implement a strategic approach to local economic development.
- Moving away from a strong reliance on centralised ‘challenge funds’ framed in Whitehall which promote competition rather than coordination and collaboration at the sub-national scale and also lead to a homogenising effect on local intervention.
- There is a strong case for a return to a formula based long-term regional funding allocations based on need – with devolved responsibility for the management of these funds to appropriate statutory bodies.
Some of the research reported here was funded by the Midlands Engine, but the views expressed are those of the authors.
For further information related to the English Midlands see:
Green A. and Rossiter W. (2019) Geographical Scales and Functions: The Case of the Midlands Engine. Report prepared for the Midlands Engine Independent Economic Review.
Green A., Rossiter W., Taylor A., Hoole C., Riley R., Karagounis K. and Pugh A. (2021) Mapping the architecture of economic development policy and strategy across the Midlands Engine pan-region
Other key studies on governance and institutions of relevance to the issues discussed here include:
Regan A., Quinn M., Romaniuk A., Sampson S., Stratton T., Brittain B. and Taylor A. (2021) Devolution and Governance Structures in the UK, Industrial Strategy Council. Devolution and Governance Structures in the UK
Seaford C., Glover B., Collinson S., Hoole C., Kitsos A., Gutierrez Posada D., Tilley H., Mukherjee A., Gilbert N., Newman J. and Driffield N. (2020) Achieving Levelling-Up: The Structures and Processes Needed. LIPSIT.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.