14 Oct 2022
Lichfields was delighted to co-sponsor the first ‘in-person’ IED conference since 2019 (BMA, London – 6 October 2022). It is a truism to say it, but much has occurred and changed in that time not least in political, economic and policy terms. Indeed, it was the first physical conference I have attended since pre-COVID times, and I quickly realised how much can be lost or watered-down when we rely purely on such events being hosted remotely. For me, one thing that I quickly realised was how ideas, new ways of thinking and debate are simply much better done when you can see the whites-of the-eyes of the people you are keen to engage with. Having recently joined Lichfields from Atkins as a Senior Director (Economics), the Conference also provided me with a welcome opportunity to reconnect with old friends and colleagues from across the diverse world of economic development.
The 2022 IED Conference was well organised and strongly delivered with a healthy and diverse balance of speakers and panel members. There were a number of critical themes that were highlighted throughout the day and here are some of my observations.
New Government, new Growth Plan
Inevitably, the new Chancellor’s September 2022 Growth Plan featured regularly. Putting aside the obvious, big-ticket fiscal headliners, speakers and delegates raised the question of what it means for Levelling Up and local economic growth. Without the necessary detail and supporting policy statements, the question largely remains unanswered. Despite this, with the focus of the Growth Plan articulating that ‘economic growth is the government’s central mission’ including ‘reforming the supply side of the economy’, there is confidence that the principles underpinning Levelling Up will remain central to government policy. The key question is the extent to which Government will support and trust local authorities and their partners in defining what the priorities for places are with delivery and funding solutions tailored accordingly.
The regeneration of town centres and their hinterlands continues to feature highly on the minds of economic development professionals. COVID has accelerated already well established and not-new structural challenges to our town centres. Impacts from Government investment through the Towns Fund, Levelling Up Funds and other interventions are anticipated keenly not least given that projects supported should have been ‘shovel-ready’. Whilst welcomed, the funding regimes put local authorities under pressure, particularly where resource capacity and timescale constraints for the competition approach have been a problem for many. In particular, the urgency of bid preparation was sometimes to the detriment of defining innovative regeneration projects which rely on genuine private sector collaboration and delivery. Moreover, bidding authorities need the headspace to look at the functioning of their towns as a whole to understand where and what intervention is required to leverage private sector investment (whether that be in the town centre or elsewhere).
The Growth Plan’s reference to the ‘streamlining of local growth funds’ and giving ‘local government the flexibility it needs to deliver for local economies’ was welcome albeit with a degree of political déjà vu and healthy scepticism. Very much related to the challenges of towns regeneration described above, there is a frustration shared by many that the prevailing funding presents authorities with no choice but to hurriedly recycle old project ideas some of which have limited chances of delivery and sustained impact. One delegate went as far as saying that local authorities and Government alike are ‘bored of churning out the same old vanilla flannel’ as a result of ‘funding tournaments.’ If local authorities are given the opportunity to define new, innovative projects in genuine partnership with the private sector within the context of market-resilient local development strategies, leverage from grant funding could be so much more impactful. A well-received session led by Mark Hepworth (The Good Economy) and Ken Hunnisett (Triple Point Investment Management) highlighted that the private finance market is ready and willing to invest in regeneration projects that can yield both public and investment returns. The question is my mind is, can we find a way to blend public sector and private sector value-for-money appraisal approaches for the benefit of people and places?
Much has been made of the importance of place as a focus of economic growth policy. Drawing on the messaging which underpins the updated Green Book, there is an overriding need for local people and stakeholders to be given the autonomy to define what works best for them. It seems like common-sense, but the weariness remains that a one-size fits all approach will never cut the mustard when it comes to local economic development. I had an interesting conversation with the Regeneration Director of a South-East New Town who highlighted that enabling new residential development in the town centre has boosted the local economy and brought a revived sense of vitality. Of course, the increased expenditure in the evening economy was driven by the expanded town centre population but more importantly, he said that the step-change has occurred because ‘people care about where they live’. Who better to find the best solutions for local growth than the people and businesses that invest their lives and livelihoods in the places they know and value. This was a common theme at the Conference with community- owned initiatives being at the heart of successful regeneration projects, especially since the pandemic.
A refreshing, and inspiring session led by Robin McAlpine from Common Weal based in Glasgow spelt out clearly what clean growth actually means. Robin has a skill in clearly translating how global environmental and carbon challenges can be addressed locally. Very positively, he also highlighted how the solutions to climate change can generate substantial local, regional and national economic growth. The core to this is ‘capturing the supply chains’ required so support the industries needed to decarbonise our society whether that be in insulating carbon inefficient homes or servicing white goods for long-term use. Never have I been so starkly confronted with the waste and damage of our throwaway world whilst at the same time seeing clearly how local places can be sustained in future by a new, local-carbon economy.
As I get my feet under my new desk at Lichfields, I look forward to continuing in my catch-ups with colleagues, clients and partners old and new. I can be contacted at: email@example.com