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We have had a couple of great sessions in Cornwall; with local Fellows considering inclusive growth within the geographical context of our peninsula, and Cornwall Council and the Voluntary Sector Forum starting to think about how we apply the RSA approach through the evolving Shared Prosperity Fund.

One of the key things that was drawn out in our sessions is that compact spatial geography ‘drives’ an economy through easier market access; but that concept is waning as technology evolves. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly need to develop new markets to support growth opportunities for their micro businesses – this is facilitated by improving ‘connectivity’ – but the agglomeration effect of cities like Plymouth are not as strong as they could be.

Partly, this is about geography and the fact that our peninsula is surrounded by sea; but the challenge for Cornwall is both ensuring the commercial opportunities of towns and villages in its east as well as opportunities not being restricted by geography.

Cornwall is sometimes described as a ‘dispersed city’: a network of communities of varying sizes (none of them over 25,000) inter-connected by complex travel, leisure and service patterns.

This inter-relationship helps drive Gross Value Added (GVA) (as does the relationship between the far south east of Cornwall and Plymouth for better quality jobs) but this is an unsatisfactory way of measuring economic progress.

The debate established that if GVA everywhere was in line with the national average it would equate to a further £191b across the UK. The reality that holds it back includes sector structure, access to markets and agglomeration effects.

What is clear is that the city region approach has failed those areas which are nominally part of one where the connection is more apparent than real. It is also seeking ‘urban’ based solutions in rural areas where the nature and dispersal of deprivation, employment and services is likely to be different.

There is a lot being written on cities and inclusive growth at the moment (including JRF and the Manufacturer’s organisation) when these are also issues for rural regions which have a lot to offer UK Plc.

So, we need to move away from a ‘grow now, redistribute later’ model and include a triple bottom line of environment, economy and social outcomes into economic planning because you cannot grow an environmental legacy or ‘solve’  social problems in three years.

We are used to GVA growing (except during the international financial crisis) but what does it achieve? More people in work or longer hours does not tell us anything about the quality of the work or – more importantly- the impact it is having on the stability and opportunity in people’s lives beyond narrow economic metrics.

Population growth is sometimes seen as a metric of economic success, because of the issue of market critical mass. Yet, this does not take into account the need to access new markets outside of the immediate geography (as touched upon in this article) in recognition of the fact that a dispersed market can give more sustainability.

Interestingly, our discussion discovered that Devon County planners consider the sustainability of each parish separately based on capacity, need and service facilities. There is a need for sustainable population growth amongst those who would keep the school or village shop open, and perhaps bring other economic activity into a village, rather than expecting a commute to a nearby town that individuals may not choose.

Local populations are needed to diversify and grow (for example) the agri food sector or strengthen Cornwall’s successful cultural sector which has cross sector opportunities through creativity.

This is a circular opportunity in a place with a strong sense of identity that is helping to drive economic growth which does not have an environmental cost: the ‘productivity’ element is about how institutions (however small) can be connected (in whichever way) to deliver outcomes. Social capital can be undermined by the requirement of work – either as an economic necessity or as the result of welfare sanction – because it can take people away from social productivity into low skilled and unproductive jobs.

There is a need, then, to measure the tangibility and cultural drivers of ‘place’ as they can often form the basis for community economic activity that can lead to market growth. How do we measure ‘community capacity’ to get things done? The cultural value of a community? Its social relationships? That people feel secure in their economic circumstances? These are all bedrocks to enable economic activity to take place.

Facilitation resources are needed to build capacity, particularly to address inter-generational or migrant/indigenous conflict in communities and to ‘answer’ some of these questions. The human experience of ‘growth’ needs to be measured so that policy can be adjusted and these measurements need to be transparent.

It’s not about the number of outputs; it should be about the outcome over a period of time. The number of ESF outputs is not the same as whether people have secured career progression as a result, or (indeed) whether they are ‘happy’ as a result of it.

There are some good opportunities for learning: the Welsh Government is considering how to develop KPIs on measuring future generational impact and Cornwall Council is looking at ways to ensure that cultural economic development is at the heart of all place evolution.

One area of concern – as some areas of activity move from State to Voluntary support – is the capacity of leaders (for example) in terms of time. This is also true for the market economy; in ensuring that leaders do not grow bigger but unproductive businesses: although bigger can equal more employment, higher productivity does not necessarily mean more jobs.

Where money can be saved in process or costs, it can be reinvested into productive activity. This will require encouragement and ‘out of the box’ thinking for central and local government.

Follow Stephen Horscroft @shorscroft68 

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