It’s time to revive that spirit of civic activism

Here’s a conundrum: help your town or city survive the recession and create new jobs and opportunities. Do it with fewer resources and, while you’re about it, see if you can eliminate poverty.

One answer may be a rediscovery of interventionist municipalism. This is a throwback – or maybe the faintest echo of a throwback – to the civic activism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where cities laid down roads and sewers, put up buildings, and housed the workers.

Nottingham, for example, has £212m invested in various banks. Apart from the £42m frozen in Iceland, much of that could be used more actively to invest strategically in business growth and in the infrastructure required for a successful city. It requires a change of mindset about fiduciary duties and risk assessment, but why not?

That kind of rethinking will be required because councils are about to be squeezed. Some commentators expect local government finances to shrink by 30% in the next five years. Andrew Hall, head of external affairs at Nottingham City Council, told a Centre for Local Economic Strategies conference today that the city was feeling budget pressures nobody imagined even six months ago.

To add to the city’s joblessness problem, the council is having to shed 500 people. It’s talking about ‘managed contraction’ at a time when local people are looking to it for leadership.

That’s a fine tightrope to walk. To do so, councils may have to jettison many of those lovingly prepared branding strategies and masterplans that presume huge growth in high-end services and never-ending overspill from the City of London.

Barrow-in-Furness, on the coast of Cumbria, has had to wake up to that reality sooner than most. Barrow used to build submarines. The demand for that these days is, let’s say, limited. What’s more, Barrow is right on the edge of the investment map. Even in the days when everyone thought they could grab a bit of London’s financial services cake, Barrow wasn’t even in the queue for the crumbs.

Harry Knowles, chief executive of Furness Enterprise, is convinced the answers have to be local. No more wild-goose chases for ‘white knight’ investors; no more grand national strategies and big contracts for organisations that don’t understand the local context.

‘To get things done we need to think local, resource local, and act local,’ he says. In his view, that means getting back to ‘real engineering’: making things that people need, such as solid state lighting to replace outdated and energy-intensive street lights.

Crucially, that needs to start with the people, not just buildings and infrastructure. As he put it, ‘Why do we spend millions putting up buildings and begrudge a social enterprise a few thousand?’

That, too, demands a change in mindset. Meanwhile both Harry Knowles and Andrew Hall offered a sobering reminder of why job creation is a key to local resilience.

In Nottingham, which has an optimistic plan to eradicate local poverty by 2030, inequalities have persisted since the recession of the 1970s. Even in the days of high employment a couple of years ago, many of the long term unemployed were only just getting to the front of the jobs queue.

Long term unemployment places a disproportionate burden on health and social care services, too: Nottingham apparently has the highest per capita use of mobility scooters in England.

In Barrow the situation is worse. Forty per cent of the people claiming incapacity benefit in the town have been doing so for ten years or more. Half the incapacity benefit claimants have no qualifications.

Government ministers love to talk up the UK as a country of superior skills and high-level qualifications. The opposite is true in many areas. And if we’re to create opportunities for many of these people, and a future for the places they live in, we need to re-imagine what can be done through basic skills and entry-level jobs as well as high-tech knowledge-intensive work. It’s not very sexy, but it is urgent.


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