There appears to be a new division emerging in UK cities as they take their first steps towards devolution, with Manchester’s devo agreement coming into effect this week. The traditional right, left and centre politicians are still there, but there may be a more fundamental disagreement between those who want to wait, patiently or impatiently, before they clutch the reins of government and launch a regeneration programme to kickstart the economies of our cities, and those who want to get on and do something themselves.
The trouble is that policymakers don’t see this entrepreneurial upsurge because they don’t value it or measure it. They also don’t tell stories about it, and stories are the tools of the political trade – it is how politicians think, take decisions and communicate. That’s why the Barrow Cadbury Trust funded Prosperity Parade, a book about successful local entrepreneurs who have devised schemes from local currencies to food markets or invested in solar energy to cut costs.
But isn’t there a problem with these small-scale, well-meaning schemes – that they are only ever available to the middle classes? What about everyone else? The answer is that this economic revolution is in its earliest stages, and particularly those bits which require public services to be more entrepreneurial.
Preston council, for example, is one of the few local authorities to investigate where the money it spends goes, and to see if it can go further by supporting the local economy and increasing choice. The Right Care, Right Here partnership between the NHS and local councils in Birmingham and Sandwell is designing a hospital that spreads economic health by training and recruiting locally, and setting up small suppliers, as part of the business of treating ill-health. There is a lesson here about using local procurement to revitalise local economies: not the big technical items or the small bulk items, but those in between. And a large group of local employers is beginning to work together and use one another’s services, as organised by the Digbeth Social Enterprise Quarter in Birmingham.
Digging out the stories for Prosperity Parade has taught me that enterprise is going to be increasingly important. But it will need the institutions that provide support or finance for schemes to expand – such as Wessex Community Assets, helping new low-cost housing in the west country, or Mongoose Energy, which began in Bath and now supports community energy all over the country, or Bristol council, which allows the city residents to pay council tax in Bristol pounds.
Experiments in local enterprise have only just begun in order to fill the gap in the devolution agreements about how to devolve economic power. What happens if one city began doing them all together? Might they begin to claw back some control over their own prosperity?
Or do they really have to wait patiently for the Chinese investors or the government programmes that never arrive?