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How to… kickstart under-performing towns and cities in 2017

Little has changed since a survey of under-performing towns and cities in 2015. So what can be done to stop the cycle of decline? 

The Institute of Economic Development, along with the Association of Town and City Management, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and Royal Town Planning Institute published a report in 2015 called A Brighter Future for our Towns and Cities.

The report explored the notion of developing a practitioner-led approach to the challenges faced by under-performing towns and cities, and was based on 11 roundtable discussions across the UK, involving members of each partner organisation. We provided a total of 16 recommendations which, we hoped, would be further developed with partners at all levels.

So what were are findings? Some places function well, others do not. Some are commercially over-heating, others are frozen solid. Some have evident reasons to be somewhere people would choose to live in 21st century Britain, and some lost their fundamental reason to be some time in the last century. The latter are the places that fall farthest and fastest in an economic downturn, and yet tend to feel the reviving drips of recovery later and to a lesser degree.

Successful local economies tend to be driven by educated, skilled and talented people drawn from a relatively young demographic. Poorer performing locations seem trapped in a cycle which sees many of their best and brightest young people leaving due to lack of educational and employment opportunities locally, and often never returning. This deprives those areas of the very people most likely to help drive up economic performance. There have also been three key brakes on growth to contend with.

Firstly, austerity measures. Economic development and regeneration practitioners at our roundtables were clear: their ability to do their jobs as effectively as they would wish has been severely compromised by funding cuts. While the difficulties in seeking additional resources in an era of public sector funding cuts was recognised, a distinction ought to be drawn between expenditure and investment. Putting money into economic development activities ought to generate financial as well as economic and social returns.

Secondly, market conditions. A combination of cyclical and structural changes have conspired to inflict further damage on many high streets across the UK over recent years. The impact on rental values of recession and slow growth has stymied new investment; the move to out-of-town retail and office locations as well as store rationalisation have left behind vacant (and increasingly derelict) properties; and the continued rise of internet shopping has placed added pressure on town and city centre retailers.

Thirdly, a lack of effective leadership. In too many places good leadership is lacking. Even though the principle of an elected mayor is not popular everywhere, it ought not be inferred from this that people do not want strong leadership. Strong leadership should mean things actually get done, that progress is made and even if some risks are taken that might well be what is needed. Incremental change in some places would mean improvement was barely discernible.

So, what needs to be done in 2017?

Towns and cities should:

  • produce a development plan setting out what kind of place they want to be and how this vision would be achieved, including a list of priority projects and initiatives.
  • create new partnerships of the private, public and third sector that will help to ensure the appropriateness, deliverability and effectiveness of development plans.
  • address the leadership deficit through the creation of full-time elected posts.
  • be bold and innovative in respect to physical developments, such that they are capable of attracting people to live, work, study, shop and play.
  • detail in specific terms what powers and responsibilities are best devolved and what added value this will achieve.
  • demand that economic development be made a statutory function within local authorities and be resourced accordingly.
  • lobby for the expansion of higher education provision and ensure it is resourced to provide start-up business accommodation and customised business support for graduates, staff and local communities.
  • require their local enterprise partnership to set out specific proposals for under-performing towns and cities, focusing on employability, skills development and enterprise support.
  • campaign for the re-introduction of area-based regeneration, with a particular focus on linking people to opportunities as a sustainable pathway out of deprivation.
  • seek new investment in transport and ICT infrastructure, to help businesses access new markets and people seeking jobs.
  • demand consideration of economic impacts of major public sector investments (such as new hospitals) and explore how they can be maximised for under-performing towns and cities.
  • insist London-based government departments to justify why they cannot be relocated outside the capital, as part of an independent review of civil service activities in London. 

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