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Grappling with growth – what Europe can teach us about strategies for promoting local growth

12 November 2013

Trudi Elliott

The topical question of how you achieve economic growth – how you properly plan things and then make them happen – seems to be everywhere I turn at the moment. It was good therefore to spend an evening in Birmingham last week listening to some potential answers to the ‘how’ question, drawing on wider European experience (something which too rarely happens in the UK).

The event – organised by the RTPI as part of its work to promote the ESPON European spatial research programme – had an additional interest and relevance for me, having worked for many years in the West Midlands, and so I found myself in the company of peers and colleagues who have, and still are, grappling with how to support local growth.

The first speaker, Professor Cliff Hague, identified some international lessons on strategic planning for economic growth. The Barca report in 2009 set out the approach for Europe and went some way to answering the ‘who should do what question’ – the answer being that central government should set general goals, performance standards and establish and enforce the ‘rules of the game’, while local authorities and others should get on with it, focusing on place. The Barca report is clear about the need for a place-based approach: “In a place-based policy, public interventions rely on local knowledge and are verifiable and submitted to scrutiny, while linkages among places are taken into account.”

The European self-critique from previous regional policy is that it has delivered too many science parks, too much infrastructure (though clearly not here!), and that everyone is doing the same work to develop ‘world class’ clusters. The trick to ‘smart growth’ lies instead in combining the strengths specific to your place...

The European self-critique from previous regional policy is that it has delivered too many science parks, too much infrastructure (though clearly not here!), and that everyone is doing the same work to develop ‘world class’ clusters. The trick to ‘smart growth’ lies instead in combining the strengths specific to your place, working with the grain of your SME economy, and creating effective connections between the public and private sectors, academia and wider ‘civil society’ (or communities, in UK speak).

So far this might not sound like rocket science, but these seemingly common sense notions are often forgotten and they are harder than they ought to be to deliver – more so in times of constrained resources. In one way, since innovation and change (doing things differently) seem to be key to making this work, the ‘needs must’ times we find ourselves might actually help.

So what role does planning have in all this? The European research evidence suggests that planning matters because of its role in the provision of transport and other infrastructure, schools, energy connectivity and land for development. The proviso is that planning cannot be a silo to itself, but has to play a critical role in connecting and exchanging ideas between the four main players (public, private, academia, community) – a bit more than the duty to co-operate perhaps, but potentially playing well to planner’s training and expertise.

Looking at the case study of Munich, four lessons stood out for me: a sustained long term strategy for growth; investment in both hard infrastructure but also ‘soft’ aspects such as entrepreneurialism; the four players working together; and the importance of place management (not just place making).

The second speaker of the evening, Gill Bentley of Birmingham University, talked about an ESPON project they had undertaken which aimed to explore good practice approaches to the design, development and implementation of sub-national ‘territorial strategies’ (for which you could read regional or LEP plans) in different European economic development and planning settings.

Gill and her colleagues looked at case studies of four regions: Ramstad (The Netherlands); Zealand (Denmark); Västerbotten (Sweden);[1] and Greater Birmingham. In typical UK fashion, whilst everyone else’s geographic structures stayed the same, the project started thinking it would look at the West Midlands region but then had to focus on the successor arrangements. This does however mean that their work is of real relevance to LEPs currently grappling with these challenges. The research stressed the need to take account of different contextual factors such as policy goals, policy instruments, institutions, ideology, ideas, attitudes and concepts, and negative lessons.

In looking at the four case studies I was particularly struck by differences and similarities in the national contexts. The UK is the most centralised, Sweden and Denmark less so, whilst in The Netherlands the researchers found genuine multi-level governance. The Danish and British case studies revealed limited legal authority and limited financial resources at the local level. Whilst there was more in The Netherlands and Sweden, the biggest difference was in leadership, with the English LEPs being the only actors with leadership from the private sector; elsewhere the leadership was political or bureaucratic, and business leaders were consulted but were not expected to lead.

The work led the researchers to create a ‘Toolkit for integrative strategic planning’, which will potentially be really useful for LEPs. For me, the key points for LEPs to consider from this work are:

  • The importance of the articulation by LEP leaders, politicians and officials, of an integrated strategy project behind which commitment can be organised;
  • The introductory strategy processes which facilitate making hard choices, to include a review process, the establishment of data gathering and information systems and governance structure;
  • A governance system in which power is sufficiently focused at the right level, to facilitate agreement and include incentives at other levels to facilitate getting things done;
  • Creating cultures between agencies which are conducive to inter-agency, inter-professional, inter-scale/place, planning and team-based working.

The final point is that these strategies should not be a final plan but a dynamic document.

In all then, the event proved to me that Europe (and European-wide research) can teach us much about strategies for promoting local growth – including, ironically, that successful strategies need to start with what is genuinely local about places rather than adopting ‘off-the-shelf’ approaches that are neither smart nor sustainable.

About Trudi Elliott

Trudi Elliott CBE is Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute. Since joining the Institute in 2011, Trudi has led the RTPI’s work on responding to the challenges of planning reform across the UK, and working with our international sister organisations. Trudi was previously Director of the Government Office for the West Midlands, Chief Executive of Bridgnorth District Council, Chief Executive of West Midlands Regional Assembly and the West Midlands Local Government Association. She has also worked as a lawyer in both the public and private sectors.