Can the future be brighter?
Rob Lamond, Founder, Policy Futures, 8 June, 2018

This week’s BBC/YouGov English Question poll again highlighted the volatility in English identity politics and the fallout from the EU Referendum, with coverage focusing on the sense of belonging and the characteristics associated with Englishness. One of the key points from the results was that only 17 per cent of respondents felt England’s best years are still in the future. In areas as defined by the survey methodology as “ex-industrial”, this figure was as low as 13 per cent.

Whilst general negativity for the future was common across all areas, these results again indicate the dislocation of the so called left behind; the post-industrial towns and cities, coastal areas, and geographically and politically remote parts of the country. Ever since the Brexit vote there has been a significant focus on these places from the media, academics and politicians looking to understand what influenced the Leave result and the ongoing tumult.

The current environment seems to be more than the routine appeal of nostalgia for a bygone age, or the latest manifestation of declinism. It is the disorientation-termed “future shock” by Alvin Toffler in his book of that name and memorably revisited by Mariana Gorbis in 2016. As Gorbis puts it, if “large and growing swathes of the population feel like they are powerless victims of the future…If your job has disappeared and your town’s economy has been decimated, you feel like a victim of the future someone else is creating”. The crash of 2008, years of austerity, questions over automation and the future of work, and the crisis of trust in politicians, the media, and the so-called “elites” all coalesce into this feeling of victimisation.

So how do we enable the communities, towns, cities and regions of England to flourish in the evolving Brexit reality? Some ideas can perhaps be drawn from Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s recent book The New Localism, which assesses the growing trend of US cities as authors of their own futures. Places such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Indianapolis – beyond the fashionable and thriving east and west coasts – are no longer prepared to accept central diktat and neglect. They have themselves taken long-term strategic approaches to revitalisation. From “rustbelt to brainbelt”, the case studies Katz and Nowak propose illustrate the value of reimagining a place’s existing resources and heritage through a focus on high skill and high productivity industries. And whilst the specific industries, governance models and financing will differ from place to place, the principles of this New Localism are transferable and applicable. Key amongst these principles are subsidiarity, collaboration throughout public and private bodies, problem solving, maximising heritage and assets, a focus on long-term prosperity and inclusivity, and crucially both representative and participatory democracy.

There are, of course, similar examples of such approaches in the UK, and the continuing evolution of the existing Combined Authorities offer hope of a similar renaissance in city region policy. But there is a danger that the disparate nature of English devolution continues the idea of an unbridgeable gulf between thriving modern cities and the rest, reinforcing the perceptions in the BBC survey and the feelings of being “a victim of the future someone else is creating”.

Gorbis calls the antidote to this “urgent optimism”, an integral part of “envisioning and making the future… a massively public endeavour”. This is essential in redesigning modern local government. It may seem perverse to be optimistic at a time when our divorce from Europe seems increasingly ill-fated, and the mandate and abilities of our central government appear so weakened. And yet this distraction and weakness may provide the opportunity for local government to thrive and seize its moment. This means the genuine local government enjoyed by many other nations, with fiscal devolution and political freedoms to raise or reduce local taxes, borrow to invest in housing and infrastructure, and fulfil the potential of our local areas. As has been set out recently on this blog, the forthcoming Spending Review offers an opportunity to reform the ways in which public services are funded. But the focus must be on the impact on places, with organisations coming together with a collective voice.

To truly maximise this opportunity there will need to be a genuine and thorough reappraisal of place-based strategies, to grasp and maximise the strengths and uniqueness of each locality. This will need to go beyond the historic boilerplate of council Corporate Plan priorities, with their well-intentioned but often vapid variations on prosperity, wellbeing and communities. In their place, bespoke and agile strategies will require a more thorough understanding and reflection of local aspirations, assets, heritage and potential for the future.

This entails a fundamental reassessment of the relationship between councils and citizens, and transforming the rules of engagement in ways such as those being pursued in Redbridge. This involves the collective responsibility of a broader coalition of communities, commercial, public and civic bodies to create solutions. It is based on a commitment to reimagining the council’s role of local leadership, offering a route to a genuine process where everyone can become actively engaged in making those futures. It will not be easy, or happen overnight, but with a sense of urgent optimism the future may be brighter than many people currently believe.

Rob Lamond is a former local government Head of Policy and founder of Policy Futures, providing policy, public affairs and communications with a focus on the ideas of the future. He tweets @futuresinfinite