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Unlocking the power of local: reflections on the new place leadership

We’ve partnered with independent think tank New Local Government Network (NLGN) and Veredus to create a collection of thought pieces on the subject of place-based leadership.

Jessica Studdert, NLGN deputy director, introduces the collection:

As our economy becomes increasingly globalised, our public policy response needs to become more localised. Global phenomena and national decisions have local consequences. To ensure places are not buffeted by outside forces and are able to create relevant solutions, strong place-leadership must forge resilience in the future.

Reductions in public expenditure after the financial crash have had a dramatic impact on the resources available for local services. Before that, the long-term shift from an industrial to a service-based economy had already created different challenges and opportunities in different parts of the country. The Brexit vote laid bare the fault lines that exist between those communities who feel empowered by the opportunities of a globalised world, and those who feel left behind.

And yet the national policy framework has largely constrained the ability of localities themselves to shape their future. Different services and programmes work to the priorities of their accountable Whitehall departments rather than those of the places in which they are located. Opportunities to work creatively with other local actors and institutions can be missed altogether, or only pursued despite, rather than because of, systemic incentives to do so.

The early promise of devolution was to create new local levers and pooled resources across functional economic geographies. These would drive economic development, allocate infrastructure investment and integrate employment support to be relevant to local circumstances, in order to have more impact. But the devolution model pursued by government set out rigid governance requirements for a combined authority and an elected mayor, in return for new powers.

Some areas have accepted this, and many areas haven't, but in general the agenda has become subsumed by an internal focus on structures. Principle has been swallowed up by process, and as a result devolution is currently falling short of its potential.

High street shops

Our essay collection is published at this critical juncture. We draw together a range of voices representing different institutions and stakeholders in places, to show how place-leadership is already emerging. In doing so, we hope to intervene in a debate preoccupied with structural form, by providing a renewed focus on function and the binding power of place.

All contributors share a recognition that no institution is an island and collaboration beyond organisational boundaries is essential. Local government has both 'hard' statutory responsibility and more nuanced but impactful convening power with partners in their communities. As the health service grapples with demand pressures, it is shifting towards a deeper understanding of its role within the wider economy. Universities increasingly recognise their status as anchor institutions which create new opportunities and linkages between the civic space and the knowledge economy. The conditions for a vibrant local economy require the private sector to be active collaborators over the longer term and not just market players in the short term. And supporting community capacity to grow and foster resilience is linked to a dynamic local voluntary and community sector which works to fill identified gaps and shape solutions to particular problems. 

Place leadership recognises the interconnectedness of services, institutions and organisations. It seeks social and economic outcomes but is firmly linked to the unique identity and culture of the locality. At a time of increasing complexity, fragmentation and economic insecurity, it provides a route to clarity: a shared vision which binds the local to the global, and navigates a clear route through.

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