Martin Ellender talks about how local leaders can articulate what a vibrant economy means for their area.
Collaboration and commercialisation are the new mantras for local authorities, which have faced an extraordinary range of challenges and opportunities in recent years. Dramatic funding reductions, new commercial powers, new incentives for growth and the tantalising prospect of devolution from Whitehall have all combined to drive a reinvention of local government.
For local leaders, one of the most important and perhaps subtle tasks is to develop a compelling and distinctive narrative for their part of the UK – one that binds people and institutions together around a common cause and connects them with a shared past, present and future. The six indices within the Vibrant Economy Index are an important tool that public sector leaders can use to craft this unique story and express their ambitions for the communities they represent.
Evoking a shared sense of purpose
A strong narrative will help local residents understand what councils are doing and the challenges they face, and how residents can connect and play a part in meeting them. When the narrative rings true, tapping into the special character and culture of a place, communities will respond with ownership, pride and engagement.
A unifying purpose and mission statement will also help to bring together local partners – public, private and third sector – to focus their collective effort on shared goals to the benefit of people and place.
Local leaders must also propagate stories of success and potential for the business community, both for businesses already in the area who are considering their future growth and for potential new investors. In both cases, businesses need reassurance that public sector leaders will support local economic growth and ensure that businesses can locate within easy reach of a skilled workforce.
Central government is increasingly doing business with local partnerships through a process of bottom-up deal-making. Local leaders must lead the pitch for these deals, often asking for new funding and powers. Proposals that rest on a strong sense of place are more likely to succeed.
A blend of art and science
By its nature, vibrancy can be difficult to pin down. You know it when you see, feel and hear it – and you know it when you don’t. A vibrant economy cannot be created, only enabled, and developing a unique narrative for every place is a vital part of making vibrancy possible. Weaving a compelling narrative involves a blend of art and science.
Each part of the UK is as unique as a set of fingerprints, with distinctive patterns of communities and businesses, built and natural environments, and local landmarks, institutions and public figures. The art of place-based storytelling is to tap deeply into local identity, heritage and symbolism. Many stakeholders will need to be involved in crafting a shared narrative. They must be able to hear what is important to them in the end product.
The science is in the use of evidence and data. This enables local authorities to understand the needs of local residents and the local economy, determine a response, and then express this in a way that resonates across local partnerships and reinforces a sense of shared purpose.
Our Vibrant Economy Index sits at the intersection of the art and science. It paints a rich picture of the strengths and assets that each place can build on, and the challenges that local leaders must harness collective effort to overcome. The separate indices create a framework for discussion around what constitutes a successful place, and provide an evidence base to support strategic decisions and determine priorities.
Public services are often data-rich but insight-poor. The indices bring complex data into focus, so that leaders can get on with the real work of making their places better every day.