Guest post by Daniel Goodwin FRSA (Chief Executive, St Albans City & District Council, 2006 – 2012)
The recent RSA conference Developing Socially Productive Places asked some important questions about the nature of economic growth and spatial development. The underlying concern being to ensure that the long term impact and social value of development needs thinking through carefully.
The discussions reflected the five challenges set out by Mark Prisk MP:
- arriving at an optimum density and proximity to secure functional communities,
- design for longevity linked to health and housing policy,
- development of new models of mixed use space reflecting the emerging interplay of work and home life,
- how to conceive of new models of public realm and
- empowering people to create lasting communities.
He considered a localist view to be key, based on Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) but, in common with many of the ensuing discussions, he did not offer suggestions as to how the political question of cross boundary growth should best be addressed.
I believe that the political dimension of economic growth and the development of new communities is one which needs to be examined carefully. How are new communities to be developed, whether stand-alone new towns or as bolt-ons to existing settlements? What do we imagine that they will be for? What will be the importance of place? How will a new community relate to existing communities and change the dynamics of a sub-region? Who will speak for a community that is not yet present? Do we conceive of this as being an urban or suburban development?
Inevitably all of these concerns require the balancing of priorities and existing interests and are therefore political. We need a way to develop existing political structures to engage positively with them. For me, on the assumption that LEPs are here to stay, that means revising the way that LEPs work with local democracy, and vice versa. More needs to be done to provide LEPs with the leverage to make things happen that foster positive economic growth and development, and in tandem local people, through the political process, need to be able to hold LEPs to account. Inevitably this can only be done by the development of an appropriate culture based on positive, 'can do' local leadership from across the sectors.
If we seek communities that are socially productive in the long term, then the concept of development as being economically, socially and environmentally sustainable is helpful because they are all linked. I consider that this requires the development of some form of long term balance sheet which shows the benefits and trade-offs of growth and its impact on future generations, both positive and negative. In this whole life cost conceptualisation there can be few externalities. What are the costs that future generations are likely to face as a result of our decisions? Furthermore, whilst we are talking here about investing in new communities, we may need to disinvest in others and work out ways of doing so which are not just about non-managed decline and attrition.
Finally, I wonder whether there is a need to consider whether we mean socially beneficial or socially productive. The former seems reasonably easy in a 'do no harm' sense, however the latter feels more proactive and something more positive to aim at. Yet it is also in need of greater clarity and perhaps some of the longer term modeling of the impacts of growth and development might help to provide a clearer definition.
There is a risk that localism is seen as achieving local objectives at the expense of the ambitions of other places or national need.
Local politics in its current form derives its mandate within tight boundaries. Yet there is the need to lead and manage development and infrastructure which operates at the level of the economic sub-region at scale and speed, whilst balancing differing local concerns. However new settlements and significant urban redevelopment projects have historically been coordinated by development corporations or regeneration agencies created by central government, not generated at the sub regional level. If such development is not to be seen as being ‘steamrollered through’ a new way of working is needed which balances public value and ‘common good’ at local, sub regional and national levels.
The balance is delicate: we hear complaints that public sector bodies lack power to realise their responsibilities; at the same time those that are endowed with powers face criticism over a lack of proportionate democratic accountability. Development pressure originates from labour markets and housing markets operating at the sub-regional and national scale, but is felt locally. If economic growth is to be socially productive in the broadest sense we need to ensure that vulnerable constituents most affected by new development accept the need for change and see the net social benefit achieved by economic growth.