Can city deals become models of regional economic innovation?

Last week a Scottish Parliament committee report into city region deals found them ‘opaque’ in their decision-making and cast doubt on their effectiveness. We asked three economic development professionals to give their views on Scotland’s regional economic strategy.

‘Scotland can model innovation’: Phil Prentice, chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership:

The concept of city deals is flawed in Scotland. It’s a very conservative policy aimed at devolving power to localities. But Scotland isn’t facing the same issues as England and doesn’t have the scale to benefit from such policies. Places were forced into it because any resource is better than nothing in the current funding environment.

This policy has been focused on ‘more of the same’. It’s in the mindset of ‘more roads equals economic growth’ rather than thinking through what places need and felt like a lot of money being spent to deliver the wrong projects.

But while the first phase of city deals was a mess, now we are seeing rigour and discipline being applied.

The real opportunity for Scotland is to look at these deals more imaginatively and model innovation. Stirling has put in place a green deal, looking at its agricultural hinterland and focusing on sustainable food production, using its rivers as resources for energy and setting up solar-powered barges. The idea is to turn it into a mini-Copenhagen and work in partnership with universities and environmental agencies. They are putting the environment in front of the economy.

‘Scotland can re-position itself as different – more

like Scandinavia, with citizens helping take plans forward.’

The Ayrshire growth deal is looking at how three fairly small towns can scale up to be the size of a city. The three geographies within its boundaries are being considered as places that are complementary rather than competitive, and playing to their strengths. It is looking at developing its marine and engineering traditions for the 21st century, using new technology to help develop marine areas as energy sources.

Similarly the Tay Cities Deal includes Perth and Dundee, which are very different and complementary places. Currently we have people from Perth travelling to Dundee each day and vice versa. We could stop the unnecessary movement of people and free up space on the roads for tourists, by creating digital infrastructure that allows each of these areas to play on their traditional strengths.

One thing the city region deals have done is to reveal natural economic geographies across Scotland, creating clusters that make sense and which might mean that we cut back on the number of local authorities we have to allow much more functional government

Scotland is now taking the money and using its own levers to let people see we are different. Scotland can re-position itself as different – more like Scandinavia, with citizens helping take plans forward.

Re-branding of existing public spend’: Derek Rankine, policy & participation manager, Surf – Scotland’s Regeneration Forum

City Region Deals have the potential to deliver an intelligent and strategic approach towards regeneration and infrastructure challenges in some of the country’s most populous economic zones. For Surf, the most welcome aspect of the model is its clearly articulated focus on inclusive economic growth, with a significant proportion of priority projects designed to deliver meaningful benefits for deprived places.

A number of the key areas of concern we raised during the inquiry are featured prominently in the committee’s report.

One is an anxiety that already struggling rural areas may be placed at further risk of being left behind. Surf contacts in parts of the country outwith City Region Deal geographies reported frustration at being excluded from what can be perceived to be ‘the only game in town’ with regard to opportunities for new capital investment in regeneration and infrastructure aspirations. Surf also expressed scepticism around whether ‘a collection of city regions’ is the best way to think about contemporary Scotland in public policy, given the reality that most of Scotland’s population live in its towns, not its seven cities.

‘Many City Region Deal funded projects would be

expected to be delivered from conventional public budgets’

The committee’s report recognises this challenge. Surf notes that the Scottish Government is developing other mechanisms to support similar ambitions in regions without cities, such as the Ayrshire Growth Deal, the Islands Bill, and the Borderlands Growth Deal.

Surf and the committee agree that there are open questions over additionality. We shared the view that many City Region Deal funded projects, including employability support programmes and road infrastructure enhancements, would be expected to be delivered from conventional public budgets. Some Surf members felt that the deals are little more than a ‘rebranding’ of existing public spending. The committee report agreed that funded projects should demonstrate that they, ‘would not have gone forward in the same way to the same timetable without the funding obtained as part of the City Region Deal’.

As City Region Deals will be making substantial investments towards enhancing the nation’s economic performance for the next decade any beyond, SURF hopes that the Committee’s concerns will be addressed effectively by local City Region Cabinets and Committees.

‘Integration of social, economic and environmental is needed’: Craig McLaren, Director of Scotland and Ireland, Royal Town Planning Institute

If city region deals are to provide this transformational change for our communities they need to be part of a strategy that integrates approaches to economic, social and environmental issues. They need to recognise how a range of investments across the region can complement one another and bring mutual benefit. And they need to look beyond the immediate to ensure that investments bring sustainable and lasting benefits in the longer term.

They cannot be a list of individual projects and initiatives sitting in isolation. Given this, it is interesting that the committee said that the process for selecting projects is too opaque, with not enough information published to explain why certain projects were chosen or otherwise. It recommends a more transparent pan-Scotland system for evaluation of projects and that they are subject to a comprehensive equality impact assessment and a sustainability audit.

The committee also said that there is a danger that the ‘often confused and cluttered policy landscape at local government, Scottish and UK levels runs the risk of reducing the impact that can be achieved from the deals’.  It mentions concerns expressed on the need for more clarity about the respective roles and relationships between city region deals and the other mechanisms for economic growth, and greater consistency with the National Planning Framework, Scottish planning policy and local development plans.

‘They need to ensure that investments bring

sustainable and lasting benefits in the longer term.’

There may be an opportunity to improve this through the new planning bill currently being scrutinised by Parliament, given that it proposes to change how city region planning is organised.

We need to make sure that new any new arrangements provide for more effective integration between approaches aimed at planning, stimulating economic growth and providing infrastructure at the city region level. Robust arrangements for strategic/ city region planning will be critical to this and, I would argue, require new regional spatial strategies to be drawn up to act as a locus for a cross-government approach.  This should include integrating regional action such as city region deals, regional transport partnerships and decisions on infrastructure investments. However, this will require changes to the bill so that it makes provisions for a statutory duty for local authorities to cooperate and for new regional planning partnerships to prepare a high level regional spatial strategy.

It is also imperative that any arrangements are better connected to community plans and local outcome improvement plans. At present community plans are not always articulated spatially. There is scope for joining up the development process for each of these plans to ensure that priorities, decision on investment and to better connect consultation.There are also opportunities for better integration in engaging with stakeholders and communities and on monitoring and research.

In discussing the national approach to city region deals the committee’s report only briefly mentions the National Planning Framework (NPF), though it quotes evidence that says that it ‘has had a coach and horses ridden through it by the city deals’. The NPF sets out a long-term vision for the development of Scotland and is often described by ministers as the spatial expression of the Scottish Government’s economic strategy.  The aspirations of the NPF are very similar to those that Scottish Government set out for City Region Deals.  However, there appears to be no formal connection between city region deals and the NPF, and the majority of city region deal proposal documents do not reference the NPF.  To achieve truly transformational changes in city regions a planned approach that considers the issues in the whole, rather than sectorally, is required.  Surely there must be an enhanced role for the NPF – and planning in general – in setting the context for the future development and implementation of city region deals?


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