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Neil McInroy: Social and cultural aspects vital to city economies

Neil McInroy
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Mainstream approaches to economic development have hemmed in local authorities and stymied progress on poverty and inequality.

A new publication, Creating Good City Economies in the UK, by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, the New Economics Foundation, New Start and the Friends Provident Foundation, covering 10 cities across the UK, showcases creative alternatives, offering them as the new progressive mainstream.

It was heartening to be involved in this work. Discussions in each city and the practical projects we learnt about showed us that elements of a good economy are already in place. Indeed, they foreshadow what a well-functioning and ‘good’ economic system would look like. Sadly, however, much of this activity is often on the margins of strategic policy and thinking. Moving forward, local authorities must rethink the system by developing a more integrated social, economic and environmental narrative and looking deeper into and accelerating the good things that are already happening.

A good economy and new mainstream is possible. Recent ideas around inclusive growth are helpful, as they hint that everyone should be able to access at least some of the benefits of economic growth and that unequal outcomes, including poverty, can hinder future economic prospects. These ideas have started to percolate through into councils, core cities and combined authorities.

However, I would go further and say that growth cannot be the sole basis to good economies. This new report and a previous publication by CLES extend our practical understanding and assert that investment in the social and cultural aspects of place is of vital importance to city economies.

Indeed, in the current economic agenda these aspects are all too often seen as a cost, whereas they should be seen as an economic investment in the future productivity of people, communities and place. Creating liveable places and sustainable prosperity are key elements of good economies.

However, the acceleration of the alternative in cities should not come at the expense of the prevailing approaches to growth, as regards the focus on capital investment, labour and skills. Instead, the new mainstream would equally accelerate wider considerations of place and ‘total factors of production’ (business culture, innovative capacity, civil society, social action, democracy). These latter aspects are the basis to a productive, inclusive economy and society.

The next step for city economic strategy and the supportive local devolution journey is to articulate and pursue the aim of an economy and society which is successful, resilient and socially just. We must build on creative energy and practical grassroots activity, harnessing and accelerating the abundance of progressive alternatives within our cities. Rethinking the economic system to be more socially and environmentally just is no longer a question of ‘nice to have’ alternative or an add-on to the mainstream; they should be the mainstream.

Neil McInroy, chief executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies

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