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Andrew Carter: Local leaders must be proactive about industrial strategies

Andrew Carter
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In the coming months, places up and down the country will start to develop local industrial strategies aimed at boosting growth and productivity in their economies, ahead of the government’s March 2019 deadline for the first local plans to be in place.

At Centre for Cities, we’ve criticised the industrial strategy for offering a top-down approach to addressing the myriad economic challenges that different parts of the UK face. As such, the emphasis on local action was one of the more welcome aspects of the strategy.

Yet the extent to which local authority leaders will be able to shape these plans remains unclear, thanks to the government’s decision to hand local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) control over them. Not only does that decision raise concerns about democratic accountability, it is also strange given that the government is reviewing the role of LEPs with a view to improving leadership, governance, and transparency.

But if the future of LEPs is uncertain, so too is the likely content and direction of the local industrial strategies. Beyond broad prescriptions that they should focus on improving skills and infrastructure, and increasing innovation and business growth, the government has not offered significant detail as to what local strategies should entail.

That uncertainty offers both opportunities and further challenges for local leaders. On the plus side, it means that everything is still to play for in the local industrial strategies, and that local leaders (who know best what the most pressing challenges are in their places) have space to manoeuvre.

Those who are proactive in 2018 in setting out the opportunities that exist to unlock growth in their areas and the issues that must be tackled will have the best prospects of influencing and shaping their local industrial strategy. In particular, city leaders should make the case for their places as being the main hubs of economic growth within wider LEP areas, and for their local industrial strategy to focus on making the most of their strengths.

However, the lack of a template for local industrial strategies also means it’s unclear whether places will be given additional powers, autonomy and money to actually deliver their plans. Ultimately, the ability of places to boost growth and productivity will not be defined by whether they have local industrial strategies in place, but by whether they have the power and resources to act on them.

With that in mind, local leaders need to consider how they can take advantage of the other funding opportunities offered by the industrial strategy, such as the new Transforming Cities Fund announced in the strategy (a £1.7bn initiative to improve transport and infrastructure in cities) and the National Productivity Investment Fund of which it is part.

But the government must also go further in giving places more powers and resources to drive growth and productivity, irrespective of who oversees their local industrial strategy and the direction it takes.

Andrew Carter, chief executive, Centre for Cities

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