The abolition of Regional Development Agencies in England and the associated funding streams makes the question of whether local government is able to drive economic growth of stark and immediate importance for communities struggling with the impact of austerity measures and recession.
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But it is not yet clear whether local government has been given the tools it needs to build sustainable local economies, either in funding or in legal powers. We will examine this question from four different aspects; resources, skills, localism and culture.
For example, what do the substantial regional differences in economic prosperity and potential mean for councils? Does localism mean the areas facing the biggest difficulties will be left behind? How will different political groups wrestle with the issues? And where do national plans for infrastructure and investment fit in?
Local government faces a specific challenge in the mismatch between political and economic cycles
What can and should local government do to ensure that, as the local economy changes, businesses can find the right skills in the local workforce not just through adult education but by having secondary and even primary school education which will ultimately support business growth.
Finally we will ask if local government is ready to embrace the cultural change needed to work in new ways with local, national and international businesses, not just supporting the traditional structures but also nurturing new forms of business such as mutuals and social enterprises.
Local government faces a specific challenge in the mismatch between political and economic cycles with chief executives often being asked to bring together democratic accountability and longer term economic goals. The summit is a unique opportunity for senior managers to have this debate.
We also need to look at what happens if the answer is no – if local government isn’t in a position to lead local economic growth. Many business people are sceptical of government’s ability to drive the economy in anything other than the most general terms, and regional economies require even more specific and targeted solutions. But if local government isn’t able to lead this growth we are left with the uncomfortable question – who else will?