The new divide in urban politics

It was a conversation with CLES director Neil McInroy a year or so ago that allowed me to see local economics a little differently.

I can’t remember quite what he said, so I won’t try to quote him, but the conclusion I drew was clear: the great divide between right and left in urban politics is being subsumed under a new divide, among people of all political persuasions and none.

It is a divide between those who want to wait, patiently or impatiently, for the Chinese to invest or before they clutch the national reins of government and launch a new regeneration programme to kickstart the local economy of our cities – and those who want to get on and do something themselves.

That means seeking out what resources are underused, whether it is people, ideas, money flowing through the local economy, or local energy or other kinds of local enterprise, and using them to meet local needs. It means taking back some responsibility for shaping local prosperity.

Neil’s remarks struck an immediate chord with me because I had been travelling around the country to find out, and then tell the stories, about some of this new generation of local entrepreneurs. And that was what they had in common: they didn’t want to wait.

‘It is a divide between those who want to wait,

and those who want to get on and do something themselves’

They were not quite the conventional model of entrepreneurs, if indeed entrepreneurs ever really fell into that category. They were more along the lines that Anita Roddick used in her famous definition. Entrepreneurs, she said, are people who can imagine the world differently.

That is not to imply that the new generation of local enterprises are not interested in making a profit. Or that they don’t need to in order to reshape the rules of the local economic game. What they have in common is a denial that there is only a national economy, and all they have to do is wait for the tide to come in.

But it is strange, on the face of it, that national policy-makers haven’t noticed what is happening, even as power is devolved to Manchester (after Easter).

There are two main reasons, it seems to me, why national politicians – and even many local politicians – don’t understand this new enterprise revolution that is emerging.

First, they don’t measure it. They collect little or no data about where money flows through cities or about local enterprise, its health or its needs.

Second, they don’t talk about it – and, in particular, they don’t talk about it because they have no stories to tell about it.

Stories are the raw materials that politicians use, to think, communicate and take decisions. Without them, they don’t see things. That is why we have been meeting the new entrepreneurs so that we can tell their stories – of big ideas and hurdles and re-thought plans and frustration and success and the difference it can make.

Not as dry thinktank case studies, but to tell their tales in depth. The result is a book of eight stories, Prosperity Parade, funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, and a showcase of what is really going on at the front line of economic innovation.

I hope that politicians, local and national, will not just read them – that they’ll go on to tell them too.

  • David Boyle is co-director of New Weather Institute. Prosperity Parade is available on Amazon and as a downloadable pdf here.


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8 years ago

Also, in my experience, politicians – both national and local – like announcing (and journalists like reporting on) things which have big numbers attached (£xm of investment; y new jobs) and a photo opportunity involved (the chancellor’s notorious hi-vis jacket and hard hat). Lots of activity by small-scale entrepreneurs, while incredibly important, doesn’t meet these criteria, so doesn’t get political or media attention.

Joyce Bullivant
Joyce Bullivant
8 years ago
Reply to  Baldassaro

I agree. The idea for instance of redesigning a city centre by adapting what is already there rather than a new shiny shopping centre some dignitary can cut the ribbon on is not something that anyone seems keen to embrace. Nor multi-occupancy of a building rather than One multi-national occupying it. Even a quick analysis shows that biggest economic activity is among the small businesses. Add them all together and its quite impressive, but its messy to government and local governments’ eyes but even the biggest multi-nationals in the world started that way. What’s wrong with cities being messy anyway? We need economic vibrancy not sterile unused buildings.

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